Editorial: Four more years to live up to American hopes

In securing a second term, Mr Obama showed how entrenched social change now is

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Barack Obama's second presidential victory drew little of the excitement that attended his first. Among his supporters there was, rather, apprehension beforehand – that the result could be disastrous or delayed – and relief afterwards, that the winner had emerged before too much of the night was out. The President himself summed up the immediate challenges in his triumphant tweet "Four more years" and a matter-of-fact statement in his victory speech inviting the defeated Republican to discuss "where we can work together to move this country forward". That is about the size of it.

Despite a still languishing economy and a fraught relationship with Congress, America's first black President secured a second term. In so doing, he showed how entrenched social change now is in the US: he relied for his victory on Hispanics, blacks, and women who rejected the conservative agenda of Mitt Romney by some margin. Despite early doubts, the Democrats got their voters out.

How much Mr Obama owes to Mr Romney's performance in the first debate that forced him to up his game, or to the hurricane that paused the campaign at a critical stage, or to Mr Romney's inadequacies as a candidate, remains to be judged. That he won at all, however, and quite comfortably, goes some way towards disproving Bill Clinton's dictum. It was not just down to the economy.

Aside from satisfaction that he ended a war, killed Bin Laden, and that his healthcare reform is now untouchable, the tasks ahead, as Mr Obama contemplates a second term, are unnervingly similar to those he faced at the start of his first. Tackling the "fiscal cliff" that threatens the country's finances at the year's end calls for that mix of decisive leadership and bipartisanship he found so hard before.

It may be some consolation that the Tea Party fundamentalists will enjoy less support in the new Congress. But Republicans will still control the House, and those serving out their last days in Washington will be keen to leave their mark. For all Mr Romney's dignity in defeat, the bitterness of Republicans was palpable.

A second-term president, however, enjoys a degree of freedom that first-termers can only envy. At home, if he can improve relations with Congress, Mr Obama can focus on jobs, capitalising on some modest green shoots that preceded the election. The prospect of Supreme Court vacancies could perhaps bring an end to the constitutional disgrace of Guantanamo, enabling Mr Obama to honour, belatedly, one of his first-term promises, and open the way for a liberalising judicial legacy.

Abroad, Mr Obama enjoys a reserve of good will from Europeans, who would have re-elected him by a landslide, had they had a vote. There will also be relief in Russia and perhaps China, where Mr Romney's hawkish warnings went down badly. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan an early item on his agenda, Mr Obama has to minimise foreign distractions.

Recent second-term presidents, most tantalisingly Bill Clinton, turned their attention to the Middle East. Mr Obama, faced with the complexities of the Arab Spring, a civil war in Syria that threatens to destabilise the whole region, and pressure to use force to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, may have a unique opportunity, post-Afghanistan, to address Israel-Palestine in a wider context.

In his first term, President Obama showed he had the temperament and the expertise to judge what risks were worth taking. With the time and political leeway afforded by a second term, he has a chance to leave the US, and perhaps the world, a better place.

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