The Obama movement has won more time.
Though the optimism that lifted Barack Obama to a historic victory four years ago has been muted, and though the country remains rattled by a sluggish economy, a virtual electoral standoff cut President Obama's way on Tuesday, allowing him another term to realize the potential his supporters see in him.
The nail-biter campaign was itself a message to the president: Do better on jobs and deal seriously with the deficit.
We're heading into a second term much like the end of his first: A divided, gridlocked government faces monumental challenges and real questions about whether our leaders are big enough to tackle them.
Elections are supposed to bring clarity, but after 18 grueling months and often petty presidential campaigning, some fundamental questions look as murky as ever:
• Is bipartisan cooperation still possible in Washington?
• Who leads the Republican Party?
• What's the president's agenda going forward?
In a way we've kept the status quo, with a Democratic president, a GOP-controlled House and a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. We've already seen that's a recipe for gridlock.
Looming almost immediately is the so-called fiscal cliff that will require tax increases and draconian budget cuts if Congress can't reach a deal by year's end. Assuming the normal laws of politics apply, both sides will have to give a little, to do something to disappoint their respective political bases. We haven't seen that willingness in Washington lately.
It's safe to assume the more pragmatic U.S. Senate can reach a compromise that would include not just cuts but also revenue increases. The U.S. House, where all but a few Republicans have signed the Grover Norquist/Americans for Tax Reform pledge to oppose any and all tax increases, is another matter.
That's where leadership comes into play, former Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida said in an interview before the votes were cast.
"The biggest problem that we've got to deal with — the fiscal cliff, the tremendous debt issue and all of that — requires both sides to stand up to their base. It's for Obama to look at the people electing him and say, 'Look, we're going to have to have entitlement reform and it's going to hurt.' And for Romney if he gets elected it's to say, 'Look, we're going to have to generate more revenue in order to make all this work. Sure, we're going to have to cut, but there's also going to have to be revenue increases, which you may translate to tax increases and Grover Norquist might not like.' "
Romney never comfortably stood as the leader of a national Republican Party, where hundreds of thousands of activists favored other presidential contenders in the primary. Regardless of the ultimate vote tally, the GOP will continue to have internal debate over the party's future.
The GOP establishment has been unable to clear the field for "electable" Republicans, and for two election cycles in a row Republicans have lost easily winnable Senate races by nominating hard right conservatives. Nobody a few months ago would have predicted Republicans would lose Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, but then the Republican nominees, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, said bizarre things about rape and pregnancy.
"I have a sense that the tea party is not as strong post-this election cycle as it was four years ago. We're not going to win the Senate because some of the things that happened by some of our tea party candidates for the second cycle," said Martinez. "When you think about losing a majority in the Senate for two cycles, that's painful and at some point people are going to figure that out."
Nor is it clear how the GOP will deal with the greatest threat to its relevancy in national elections: demographics.
The fact that Florida was shaping up late Tuesday to be at least as strong a state for Obama as Virginia underscored the importance of the growing Hispanic vote in politics. If Republicans can't win more than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote and 10 percent of the African-American vote nationally, they will cease to be a competitive party in an election cycle or two.
This is also the latest in a series of elections where we see how faulty are the voting systems in the world's greatest democracy. Partisan operatives draw up laws that lead to legions of lawyers lining up to challenge provisional ballots in states like Ohio and Florida. Miami-Dade voters have to plead, "Let us vote! Let us vote!"
America deserves and expects better.
So what's next?
"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said two years ago, signaling the Republican agenda would be less about governing than about thwarting.
Maybe now that Obama is poised to be a lame duck, Republicans will be more willing to work with him rather than fight every initiative. Maybe Republicans out of sheer self-interest will finally want to tackle immigration reform. Maybe Obama, chastened by a tough re-election campaign, will manage to work more effectively with Congress.
The president never laid out a clear agenda for a second term, and instead concentrated on depicting Romney's agenda as destructive to the middle class. Now Obama will have another four years to deliver on his earliest promise — hope and change.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]