WASHINGTON: The election sorted out winners and losers, but it left intact a polarised governing structure in Washington that has been unable to produce much more than gridlock during the past couple of years.
The President, Barack Obama, seemed on track to become the first president in modern history to be re-elected with a smaller share of the vote than he got in his first bid. And while voters opted to keep Congress in the same hands as the past two years, 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 voters gave them a mandate to actually accomplish anything.
Obama: The best is yet to come
President Barack Obama has won a second term in the White House, defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney.PT0M0S 620 349
But as they return to Washington and a set of 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, he 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,'' Ken Duberstein, a Republican lobbyist who was White House chief of staff during Ronald Reagan's second term, said.
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 be grappling with the tensions within their 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,'' said one White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
''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 Americans.
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 taking actions that do not require congressional approval, as he has done during the past year with an initiative that the White House has branded ''We can't wait''. Among them have been programs to hire veterans, assist homeowners in refinancing their mortgages and give waivers to states seeking to boost education standards.
''He does think that's going to be the new normal,'' another White House aide said.
Mitt Romney's defeat seems likely to ignite an intense debate among Republicans over whether he failed because he wasn't true enough to the party's conservative philosophy or because the GOP as a whole is 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 didn't 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 GOP-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.
The Washington Post