Americans narrowly reaffirmed their confidence Tuesday in President Barack Obama, giving him four more years to improve the economy, reduce the federal deficit and navigate a world filled with both opportunity and danger. The president's re-election reflects voters' clear-eyed assessment of the remarkable financial challenges the country has faced and the shared sacrifice it will require to get the nation's finances in order. It is a victory for pragmatism over ideology, and it shows America still believes in creating opportunities for all at home while thoughtfully engaging with the rest of the world.
The difficult last four years have tested the nation and its president. The bright idealism of Obama's historic 2008 election has faded, weathered by the depths of a historic economic collapse and a more pessimistic view of the future. But voters decided Tuesday to stick with the president who stopped the financial free fall and has the economy headed in a positive direction, even if the pace of the recovery remains frustratingly slow.
In exit polls, most voters said the economy remains the top issue facing the nation. About half said Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, was more responsible for the financial challenges than the Democrat. But just a quarter of the voters said they are better off than they were four years ago, and most do not feel that the economy is getting better. Yet most of those surveyed said Obama's policies help the middle class and the poor.
Now the pressure will be on Obama in a second term to accelerate the economic recovery and take meaningful steps to reduce the federal deficit. He has been candid about the need to raise more revenue as well as reduce spending, and he will have to develop a more vigorous approach and sell it to Congress and the public. But he also will have to acknowledge that tough choices must be made to ensure the long-term future of retirement programs, particularly Medicare.
For Republicans, this is a moment for soul-searching about the party's identity and its direction. The enthusiasm among the party faithful for Mitt Romney was never as strong as their dislike of Obama. The stubborn refusal by Romney and congressional Republicans to accept any tax increases to address the deficit is divorced from reality, and most voters said in exit polls that taxes have to go up. The party's embrace of the most extreme social positions and its failure to appeal to women and minorities doesn't bode well for its long-term political success. Many of the most conservative Republicans, from U.S. Senate candidates in Indiana, Missouri, Massachusetts and Florida to candidates in county races in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, lost Tuesday night.
Obama also must move toward the political center. He has to work harder at building a consensus with the most reasonable Republicans in Congress. He has to lead on reforming entitlements and be willing to bend — but not break — on difficult changes. And he has to stand up to the most partisan members of his own party as he fights the gridlock in Washington that so irritates Americans hungry for a clear direction.
This remains a closely divided nation, but Americans have concluded Obama remains the best choice to lead the country toward a brighter future. The president faced difficult challenges in his first term, won historic health care reform and tighter financial regulation, and wound down two wars. Those are no small accomplishments, but the challenges of the second term will not get any easier. It is up to the president to reward the faith the nation has placed in him.