For President Barack Obama, now comes a second chance. An electorate that considers the country to be on the wrong track nonetheless agreed to renew his contract Tuesday in hopes that the next four years will be better than the last.
Obama emerges from a scalding campaign and a four-year education in the realities of Washington a far different figure from the man sent to the White House in 2008. What faces him in this next stage of his journey are not overinflated expectations of partisan, racial and global healing, but granular negotiations over spending cuts and tax increases plus a looming showdown with Iran.
Few if any expect him to seriously change Washington anymore; most voters just seemed to want him to make it function. His remarkable personal story and trailblazing role are just a vague backdrop at this point to a campaign that often seemed to lack a singular, overriding mission beyond stopping his challenger from taking the country in another direction.
More seasoned and scarred, less prone to grandiosity and perhaps even less idealistic, Obama returns for a second term with a Congress still partly controlled by an opposition party that will claim a mandate of its own. He will have to choose between conciliation and confrontation, or find a way to toggle between the two.
"Will he be more pugnacious and more willing to swing for the fences on domestic issues, judicial appointments and so forth?" asked Christopher Edley Jr., a dean of the law school at UC Berkeley, and a longtime Obama friend who has been disappointed at times. "You can react to a narrow victory by trimming your sails, or you can decide 'What the hell, let's sail into the storm and make sure this has meant something.' "
The champagne bottles from victory celebrations in Chicago will barely be emptied before Obama has to begin answering that question. The coming end-of-the-year fiscal cliff prompted by trillions of dollars of automatic tax increases and spending cuts could force Obama to define priorities that will shape the rest of his presidency before he even puts his hand on the Bible to take the oath a second time.
Obama has expressed hope that "the fever may break" after the election and that the parties come together, a theory encouraged by allies like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "I've talked with colleagues in the Senate who for months have told me they're very anxious to get beyond the gridlock and craziness," Kerry said.
If that proves overly optimistic, allies said, then the president's re-election puts him in a stronger position than in the past.
"I actually think he's holding a lot of cards coming off a win," said John Podesta, who led Obama's transition team four years ago. "He can't be overturned by veto, so he can create a certain set of demands on Republicans that they're going to have to deal with."
But even as votes were coming in, Republicans were making clear that Obama will have to deal with them, too.
"If he wins, he wins but at the same time, voters will clearly vote for a Republican House," said Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican who shouted "You lie!" at Obama during a speech to Congress. "The consequence of that is our voters really anticipate and count on us holding firm."
Now the struggle for re-election will be replaced by a struggle for Obama's political soul. Liberals who swallowed their misgivings during the campaign said they would resume pressure on the president to fight for their ideas. Other Democrats, and some Republicans, will push him to be more open to the views of those who voted against him.
"He needs to do something dramatic to reset the atmosphere and in a dramatic way demonstrate that he is very serious about finding bipartisan solutions," said David Boren, a former senator who now serves as the president of the University of Oklahoma and as a co-chairman of the president's intelligence advisory board. Boren suggested that Obama appoint "a unity Cabinet" bringing together Republicans and Democrats.
Ilya Sheyman, the campaign director of MoveOn.org, said Obama's base would be hungry for action, not accommodation.
"We see the president's re-election as a precondition for progress and not progress in itself," he said.
Obama is acutely aware that time for progress is limited in any second term, as he increasingly becomes a lame duck.
Given that dynamic, Democrats said Obama must move quickly to establish command of the political process.
"If you don't put anything on the board, you die faster," said Patrick Griffin, who was President Bill Clinton's liaison to Congress and is now associate director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "If you have no credibility, if you can't establish some sort of victory here, you will be marginalized by your own party and the other side very quickly."ANALYSIS