After one of the most polarizing election seasons in recent memory, Americans went to the polls Tuesday and returned Barack Obama to the White House. Obama can rightly claim that his victory is a victory for the middle class, who helped return him to office. But the president now confronts enormous challenges, both self-created and inherited.
An inspired orator with an ambitious vision, Obama, it has become clear, is a reluctant retail politician. He can work a room full of supporters, but hasn't done enough to build relationships that would help him succeed as a president, both among supporters and what he would call "obstructors."
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein revealed the other day, Obama doesn't quite realize the impact he could have on senators receiving a call from the nation's commander in chief.
"He could be more active in terms of picking up the phone and calling people," Feinstein told The Fresno Bee's editorial board last week. Former President Bill Clinton made those sorts of calls, she said. "I'm not sure (Obama) understands that."
Now that he has secured a second term, Obama will have to build those retail skills, and quickly. If Congress fails to act and modify a previous budget deal, the nation is scheduled to go over the "fiscal cliff" at the start of 2013. Along with the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax holiday would go away and the extension of federal unemployment benefits would expire. Some $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts would go into effect over 10 years.
Although Obama has vowed the nation will not go over the fiscal cliff, it is unclear how he would save us from this economic calamity. Will Congress suddenly become less obstructionist because of Tuesday's election results? We certainly hope so, but it is far from likely.
Along with the Republican Party, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney must also engage in some introspection. Although showing some signs of life, the economy has been so grim for so long, this should have been an easy year for a GOP challenger to cream an incumbent. That Romney struggled and lost against Obama says much about his weakness as a candidate, but more importantly, the backwardness of his party's agenda.
The voting population of the United States is becoming increasingly Latino, supportive of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices and tolerant of gay marriage. Yet the GOP clings to a platform and a political strategy that all too often offends and excludes minorities, gays and women.
During a speech on Monday night in Virginia, Romney made at least one comment that resonated in this political season. He urged supporters to "reach across the street to that neighbor with the other yard sign."
Part of the problem, however, is the United States has become a place where like-minded people segregate themselves in the same neighborhoods, cities, states and channels of information. The right watches Fox News; the left watches MSNBC. People wanting to engage with someone with a different yard sign would have to drive out of their self-selected political cul-de-sacs.
With his win, Obama becomes only the second Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win two terms as president. But there isn't time to gloat. He immediately must confront the federal deficit, Syria, Iran, implementation of health care reform and other policy challenges, while also laying out a second-term agenda. To do all this, he will have to face the fundamental question of how to restore some glue to a society that too often seems unhinged, uncivil and unwilling to cooperate. That is not something a president can accomplish alone. But if he doesn't lead the fight and enlist all of us to join him, this nation could be on the edge of cliffs more daunting than the fiscal precipice.