WHEN President Barack Obama met then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year, a microphone picked up a private exchange between the two. Speaking about missile defence, Obama asked Medvedev to convey a message to Vladimir Putin to give him some space. He said: ''This is my last election … after my election I have more flexibility."
The 22nd amendment to the US constitution limits a president to just two terms. That rule produces a strange phenomenon of American politics, where a president spends his first term with an eye on re-election, and then, once elected, a second term where he has the freedom to follow his instincts, free from worrying what the electorate might think. Conversely, it also produces a president who can become a lame duck.
Presidents tend to focus on foreign policy in their second term because it's the one area where they have relative freedom of action. In domestic policy, presidents are heavily constrained by Congress.
The 2012 election has produced a United States that looks a lot like it did before the election; a Republican House of Representatives, a Democrat Senate, and a Democrat president.
For a man who came to office promising change, that must be a depressing prospect. Obama has always believed that he can reach across the political divide, but the evidence for that has been scant in his first term. The closeness of this election does not augur well for his authority in his second term. It has been hard to ascertain from the campaign whether Obama will use his second term to follow his liberal instincts - to stick to his principles - or his conciliatory instincts - which have led him to compromises that disappointed his supporters.
Unlike Australian elections, which are always a battle for the centre, American elections tend to be about appealing to the fringes, hoping to motivate enough of your supporters to vote. The Republicans have proven to be experts at this in the past, for example, by conducting referendums on gay marriage in order to motivate their supporters.
However, this election has proven a disappointment for the Tea Party wing of the Republicans. By picking extremist candidates, the Republicans suffered defeats in several key states, which have cost them a chance to control the Senate. Richard Mourdock, the Republican Indiana Senate candidate, lost a winnable race largely because of his comment that a child born from an act of rape was a ''gift from God''.
This division is reflected in the electoral map, which has looked much the same for several elections now; an ocean of red in the middle with blue edges on the west and north-east coasts.
Obama's major challenge of the next four years will be to bring this divided nation together, and get a Congress, which is bordering on the dysfunctional, working.
His great rhetorical skills have not worked as well on Congress as they do on the American public. He came to office as an inexperienced senator, and has shown an aloofness which has not helped move intransigent politicians.
His immediate task is to get the warring parties together to get a consensus on budget measures that will reduce the US deficit. If that doesn't happen, a series of automatic spending cuts and tax increases go into effect which would certainly drag the nation into recession. To cite just one example, it is estimated that 26 million households would face an immediate tax hike of an average of $3700 because they would be caught by an anti-avoidance measure called the alternative minimum tax.
Even if he can broker a deal, America still faces a recovery that has been slow and faltering. Overseas, an implosion of the eurozone is still a possibility. His immediate focus will be domestic economic recovery. But in the longer term, he may try his hand at a few foreign policy issues. Iran's nuclear program still looms as a flashpoint. He might even earn that Nobel peace prize he was prematurely given.