WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a new urgent task now that he has a second term, working with a status-quo Congress to address an impending financial crisis that economists say could send the country back into recession.
“You made your voice heard,” Obama said in his acceptance speech, signaling that he believes the bulk of the country is behind his policies. It’s a sticking point for House Republicans, sure to balk at that.
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The same voters who gave Obama four more years in office also elected a divided Congress, sticking with the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans kept their House majority.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke of a dual mandate. “If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs,” he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had a more harsh assessment.
“The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” McConnell said. “They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together” with a balanced Congress.
Obama’s more narrow victory was nothing like the jubilant celebration in 2008, when his hope-and-change election as the nation’s first black president captivated the world. This time, Obama ground it out with a stay-the-course pitch that essentially boiled down to a plea for more time to make things right and a hope that Congress will be more accommodating than in the past.
The most pressing challenges immediately ahead for the 44th president are all too familiar: an economy still baby-stepping its way toward full health; 23 million people out of work or in search of better jobs; civil war in Syria; a menacing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Sharp differences with Republicans in Congress on taxes, spending, deficit reduction, immigration and more await. While Republicans control the House, Democrats have at least 52 votes in the Senate and Republicans 45. One newly elected independent isn’t saying which party he’ll side with, and races in Montana and North Dakota were not yet called.
Votes also were being counted Wednesday in the Montana and Washington gubernatorial races.
Obama’s list of promises to keep includes many holdovers he was unable to deliver on in his first term, such as rolling back tax cuts for upper-income people, overhauling immigration policy and reducing federal deficits. Six in 10 voters said in exit polls that taxes should be increased, and nearly half of voters said taxes should be increased on incomes over $250,000, as Obama has called for.
“It’s very clear from the exit polling that a majority of Americans recognize that we need to share responsibility for reducing the deficit,” Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told CNN. “That means asking higher-income earners to contribute more to reducing the deficit.”
Even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan. 20, he must deal with the threatened “fiscal cliff.” A combination of automatic tax increases and steep across-the-board spending cuts are set to take effect in January if Washington doesn’t quickly reach a budget deal. Experts have warned that the economy could tip back into recession without an agreement.
Newly elected Democrats signaled they want compromise to the avoid the fiscal cliff.
Sen.-elect Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor who defeated Republican George Allen, said on NBC’s “Today” show that voters sent a message they want “cooperative government.” But he also says the election results show that the public doesn’t want “all the levers in one party’s hands” on Capitol Hill.
From Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren said on “CBS This Morning” that those who voted for her opponent, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, expressed a desire for lawmakers to work together. She says: “I heard that loud and clear.”
Obama repeated his campaign slogan of moving “forward” repeatedly in a victory speech early Wednesday in his hometown of Chicago.
“We will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there,” he said. “As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, 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, and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.”
Former Obama adviser Anita Dunn told “CBS This Morning” that the president made it clear in his acceptance speech that he will be reaching out, and she warned GOP House leaders, representing Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, to keep in mind that their voters also wanted to keep Obama.
“Clearly there’s a lot of momentum and a lot of incentive for people to work together to really find answers to the challenges,” she said.
The vanquished Republican, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, tried to set a more conciliatory tone on the way off the stage.
“At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering,” Romney said after a campaign filled with it. “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
Obama won at least 303 electoral votes to 206 for Romney, with 270 needed for victory, and had a near-sweep of the nine most hotly contested states.
But the close breakdown in the popular vote showed Americans’ differences over how best to meet the nation’s challenges. With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, the popular vote went 50 percent for Obama to 48.4 percent for Romney, a businessman-turned-politician. Romney had argued that Obama failed to turn around the economy and he said it was time for a new approach that combined lower taxes and a less intrusive government.
Obama’s re-election means his signature health care overhaul will endure, as will the Wall Street overhaul enacted after the economic meltdown. The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan will continue apace. With an aging roster of justices, the president probably will have at least one more nomination to the Supreme Court.
A second term is sure to produce turnover in his Cabinet. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has made it clear he wants to leave at the end of Obama’s first term but is expected to remain in the post until a successor is confirmed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s rival for the presidency four years ago, is ready to leave. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta isn’t expected to stay on.
Obama won even though exit polls showed that only about 4 in 10 voters thought the economy is getting better, just one-quarter thought they’re better off financially than four years ago and a little more than half think the country is on the wrong track.
But even now, four years after George W. Bush left office, voters were more likely to blame Bush than Obama for the fix they’re in.
Some Americans were hopeful for progress in Obama’s second term.
“He may not have done a great job in my mind but I kinda trust him,” Jerry Shul said Wednesday morning in Times Square. “And I feel like he’s gonna keep trying and I feel like when people keep trying in you favor things work out. I have faith in him, I have faith he will get with the Republicans and get something done.”
Elsewhere on the ballot, voters in Maine and Maryland became the first to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote while Washington state and Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana.
The most expensive presidential campaign in history, at $2 billion plus, targeted people in the nine states that determined the outcome, and the two sides drenched voters there with more than a million ads, the overwhelming share of them negative.
Obama claimed at least seven of those states, most notably Ohio, seen as the big prize. He also prevailed in Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin. Romney got North Carolina.
Florida was too close to call Wednesday morning. The unofficial count had Obama with a 46,000-vote lead, but Florida historically has left as many as 5 percent of its votes uncounted until after Election Day.
Overall, Obama won 25 states and the District of Columbia. Romney won 24 states.
It was a more measured victory than four years ago, when Obama claimed 365 electoral votes to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 173, and won 53 percent of the popular vote.
Preliminary figures indicate fewer people participated this time. Associated Press figures showed that about 118 million people had voted in the White House race, but that number will rise as more votes are counted. In 2008, 131 million people voted, according to the Federal Election Commission.
— Associated Press