A second term – and a second chance at the greatness he promised

 

Chicago

Barack Obama emerged early yesterday from the mincing machine of the presidential election, bruised but politically intact after decisively dispatching Mitt Romney and thus securing a second chance at becoming the transformative leader he had always promised to be.

After weeks of suspense that saw Mr Romney surge from behind to what seemed like grasping distance of the keys to the White House, Mr Obama finally ground out a victory in the Electoral College tallies, with none of the overwhelming margins or sense of grand destiny of 2008.

Mr Obama achieved only a razor-thin edge in the popular vote – with returns from 94 per cent of all precincts counted, he stood at 50 per cent against 48 per cent for his Republican rival – but what mattered was his dogged and successful defence of the handful of key battleground states. With Florida still too close to call yesterday, the President was guaranteed at least 303 votes to Mr Romney's 206 in the Electoral College. He had needed to 270 to prevail.

That was all that was required to ignite the more than 10,000 supporters who had poured into the McCormick Centre near downtown Chicago and, when the moment arrived, erupted into raucous delirium when Mr Obama, accompanied by his wife and two daughters, strode on to the stage to claim his second term

While some had predicted a long night and margins thin enough to trigger a storm of legal challenges and possible recounts, in the end the states that really mattered – Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado – lined up fairly swiftly for the President. It was 20 minutes after midnight on the East Coast when the networks declared the night for the incumbent and the Democrat roar went up.

But for all the hoopla and the ecstasy of his supporters, Mr Obama goes home to a Washington that in many ways is no different than before. And if he is, indeed, to remake himself in the image of the candidate we saw four years ago – the leader who was going to transcend partisan divisions and unify a fractured and economically battered nation – he must first cross a quagmire of long put-off problems and challenges, none of which will be easily solved.

While the nation voted to give him a fresh chance, they also rewarded Republicans with a still-solid majority in the House of Representatives.

Even if the Democrats were set to hold on to, or even expand, their narrow majority in the Senate, the bulwark of opposition to the President's agenda in the lower house remains. After suffering a second presidential loss in a row, the Republican mood looks bloody.

If at times as soaring as any we have seen him give before, Mr Obama's acceptance speech was also grounded in an acknowledgement of the difficulties ahead. "The best is yet to come," for the United States, he insisted. "You voted for action, not politics as usual." But partisan passions never go away, he added. "That won't change after tonight, and it shouldn't. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty."

He offered conciliation to Mr Romney – who had earlier delayed conceding for more than 40 minutes as aides scrambled to see if the networks had declared the race too hastily – and asked to sit down with him in the weeks ahead to seek his counsel.

But while he pledged to reach out to all Republicans, responsibility lay with them too, he said. "The recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus". Immediately looming is the "fiscal cliff" at the end of this year – before the inauguration for a second term – and will require a knitting together of a bargain to address both the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and voluntary agreement on painful cuts in domestic spending.

If no deal is reached, an automatic process will kick in to slash defence spending and raise taxes by about $600bn – something that economists warn could very quickly push America back into recession.

Nothing in the negotiations that lay ahead suggests accommodation will be easy. The quest by Mr Obama to end the tax cuts so, as he said on the stump, the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in the effort to tackle a $1 trillion in annual deficits and a national debt running at $1.6trn will be vigorously resisted by Republicans.

And yet, Mr Obama can dream to hope that the clouds can yet be parted. In one regard, his place in his history is already protected. The enormous undertaking that is the healthcare overhaul, which Mr Romney had pledged to repeal, is now secure, notwithstanding exit polling on Tuesday showing 50 per cent of Americans would like to see it gone and only 44 per cent in support.

Moreover, if the "fiscal cliff" can be averted and agreement reached on a new debt ceiling, there is reason to believe that while he spent all of his first term and his re-election campaigning facing the headwinds of the Great Recession, in the second he may enjoy an accelerating economic recovery.

Without the concerns of facing another election, Mr Obama may feel liberated to expand on that legacy, making swift moves to introduce reform of immigration laws and offering substantive proposals on global warming. Both issues were notably absent from his re-election campaign.

Polling over, the President must also urgently turn his attention to the world stage. While the leaders of the main allied nations, including Britain, may welcome having a familiar partner remain in the White House for four more years, they will instantly be pressing him to focus on everything from the crisis in Syria to the stand-off with Iran and the continuing uncertainty of the Arab Spring.

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