And now to business for a house dividedKaren Tumulty
Published: November 8 2012 - 12:00AM
THE election sorted out winners and losers, but it left intact a polarised governing structure that has been unable to produce much more than gridlock for the past couple of years.
President Barack Obama appeared on track to become the first president in modern history to be re-elected with a smaller share of the vote than he did the first time.
And while voters opted to keep Congress in the same hands, congressional approval ratings are at near-record lows.
After an intensely negative campaign in which both parties defined themselves by who they were not and where they would not compromise, neither can claim that voters gave them a mandate to actually do anything.
But as they return to Washington and its immediate challenges, starting with the year-end "fiscal cliff", the election has given them a new understanding of what they are up against.
Mr Obama won not by presenting a positive and detailed agenda but by convincing voters that Mitt Romney and the Republican Party were unacceptable.
If he hopes to achieve anything significant in his final term in office, the President must first forge the kind of national sense of purpose that the election failed to provide.
"The role of the president is to build a consensus in America, and that's the way you build a consensus in Washington," said Ken Duberstein, a Republican lobbyist who was White House chief-of-staff in Ronald Reagan's second term.
Meanwhile, Republicans have squandered what once looked like a promising opportunity to regain both the White House and the Senate.
Amid the recriminations, they will grapple with both the tensions within the party and the outside demographic forces — such as the growing political power of Hispanics — that are shrinking their political base.
And for both Democrats and Republicans, there will come a reckoning with a new political system in which outside money, most of it ideologically driven and averse to compromise, has arisen as a potent force.
Mr Obama has told aides he plans to spend more time outside Washington during the next four years.
"One thing he does not want to do in his second term is get caught in the bubble," one White House official said. Like others leery of discussing Mr Obama's second-term plans before the balloting was done, he agreed to speak anonymously.
"I think that I've learnt some lessons over the last four years," Mr Obama said at a September forum in Florida.
"And the most important lesson I've learnt is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
Most instructive to the President, according to White House aides, was the contrast between his failure to achieve a "grand bargain" during the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, and his success several months later in forcing Republicans to extend a payroll tax cut for 160 million people.
In the earlier effort, Mr Obama invested his energies in negotiating with congressional leaders. In the latter, he prevailed by taking his case to the country.
He also plans to be more aggressive in doing things that do not require congressional approval, as he has had to do over the past year.
Among them have been programs to hire veterans, assist home owners in refinancing their mortgages and give waivers to states wanting to boost education standards.
"He does think that's going to be the new normal," another White House aide said.
Mr Romney's defeat appears likely to ignite an intense debate among Republicans wondering if he failed because he was not true enough to the party's conservative philosophy, or because the party as a whole was not inclusive enough for an increasingly diverse nation. Also likely to be questioned is the influence of the intensely conservative Tea Party faction.
This was the second election in which Republicans did not pick up as many Senate seats as they had expected because they nominated especially conservative candidates — such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — who alienated moderate voters in Republican-leaning states.
Recent history suggests that losing two presidential elections in a row can force a party to reorient itself, as the Democrats did after 1988 and the Republicans after 1996.
White House strategists think that this time around, it is likely that Republicans will come to the table to hammer out immigration reform. They are less hopeful for common ground on tax reform. WASHINGTON POST
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