Obama Is In For A Bumpy Ride

President Obama’s Electoral College victory Tuesday may have settled an election, but not a direction.

Weakened by a near-split in the popular vote and a contest marked by its nastiness and small-bore skirmishes, the first African-American to be re-elected to the highest office will be tasked to lead half of a nation that sought his defeat, alongside a Congress philosophically more divided than ever.

In 2008, voters swept a young Illinois senator into the White House on a promise of change and collaboration as the economy was plummeting over a precipice.

In the final days of this campaign — and during his victory speech early Wednesday night — Obama tried to rekindle his trademark themes. “I am hopeful tonight,” he said. “We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

His campaign slogan was “Forward,” and Obama telegraphed how quickly he expects to get down to work, both with Congress and with a transition to a second term. (There will be changes aplenty as exhausted White House aides and Cabinet officials make for the exits; the president and his chief of staff know where to expect the vacancies.)

“I return to the White House more inspired and more determined about the work we need to do and the future that lies ahead,” Obama told thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered in a Chicago convention hall. “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual,” he continued in remarks that lasted 20 minutes. “We are not as divided as our politics suggest.”

That rhetorical flourish will be tested almost immediately as the White House and Congress clash over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which is an end-of-year statutory deadline for across-the-board spending cuts and higher tax rates for everyone. Both parties want to avoid inaction that would let current law go into effect, and Washington is well versed in the component reforms that would avoid cliff diving. But Democrats have vowed they will not cut spending more deeply unless Republicans agree to raise revenues, and the GOP remains resolute that individual tax rates will not go up.

House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement three hours before Obama spoke in Chicago, seeking to herald his party’s retention of House control. “With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates,” he noted.

Wasting no time, he scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss what his staff billed as “the need for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs.”

The speaker came close to a secret $4 trillion budget deal with Obama in the summer of 2011 before both sides walked away from collaboration as the ceiling on the nation’s borrowing authority remained for a time in legislative jeopardy. Both parties in 2011 said there were insufficient votes in the House to tackle more than $1 trillion in spending reductions, and that standoff created the sequestration guillotine now hanging over them come Dec. 31, along with the end of tax breaks that have bolstered households through these tough economic times.

A lame duck Congress and a president awaiting his second term will face off once again.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, weighed in early Wednesday with his own statement, seeking to create a united front with the GOP’s sole power centre, which remains in the House. “We’ll be there to meet him halfway,” he said of the GOP’s willingness to compromise with Obama.

Republicans hoped this election cycle would put them in control of the Senate, but it was not to be, and no one was more disappointed than McConnell. The Kentucky conservative who faces re-election in 2014 made clear that shared power is how his caucus interprets divided government.

“The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” McConnell said in his statement. “They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control. Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing” in the House, and in “a closely divided Senate.”

Conservatives’ decision to await the president’s proposed solutions means both parties are poised and well-rehearsed for combat over the role of government, taxes, spending (including for defence), Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the fate of the debt ceiling, which is likely to be reached early in 2013.

The president pledged to find a bipartisan blend of spending reductions and higher taxes to shrink deficits over the next decade, but it appears that only the crisis of the looming cliff — and maybe not even that emergency — can force the outgoing Congress and Obama to agree.

The two parties concur that lower deficits will encourage more robust economic growth. But with U.S. expansion still weak, Obama’s leadership challenges are many, and in the White House the focus continues to be on stimulating a slowly improving economy, not turning off the spigot too soon.

Obama will try to seize a mandate from the muddy election results Tuesday, but his clout in a second term is likely to be brief, perhaps 18 months before his lame-duck status puts significant domestic legislative achievements out of reach. In an Iowa television interview on Tuesday morning, Obama repeated his hope that voters would send a decisive, clear message to Washington to “break the fever” of political gridlock.

Even with a decisive Electoral College outcome to bolster his victory, nothing about the 2012 election — not the arguments presented to voters or the naked appeals to slices of the electorate — brought the country closer together.

“The culture of Washington has been very resistant,” Obama said Tuesday. “This has been the area where I’ve been most frustrated.”

The agenda Obama says he will pursue in his second term moves beyond the economy, job creation and shrinking deficits. For example, he promised Latinos, a voting bloc that turned out for him in large numbers Tuesday, that he will tackle immigration reform, a major undertaking postponed until 2013 or beyond. The president campaigned to build alliances with GOP partners to get it done.

Much as Washington changed Obama in his first two years in the Oval Office, the legacy of his second term may depend on the lessons he internalized during a bare-knuckled and pedestrian campaign. Neither candidate did much to prepare the electorate for the policy tradeoffs that lie ahead. Voters continued to favour Romney’s economic skills through Election Day, according to polling, but they trusted and liked the incumbent president more.

Obama’s persistent struggles to communicate a persuasive narrative to the country — essential to leadership and leverage — will emerge again almost immediately. The president is likely this week to hold a news conference or deliver an address in which he describes his work plan. Obama, Vice President Biden and their families were scheduled to return to Washington from Chicago on Wednesday afternoon.

Obama’s critics suggest the president’s real challenge is listening — listening to new ideas, listening to lawmakers, and listening to the half of the country that sees the country’s trajectory in a different light. A year’s campaign away from Washington might be helpful on that score, the president hinted in his victory speech. A second-term agenda could emerge from America’s over-polled worries, probed exhaustively over the last year.

“Despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future,” Obama said. “We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers; a country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation, with all of the good jobs and new businesses that follow. We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

Americans want “a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth,” he continued, “but also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being. We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America.”

Voters granted the president more time, and Obama warned that governance would not be trouble-free.

“By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward,” the president said. “But that common bond is where we must begin.”

This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.

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