Barack Obama, who rocketed into the White House on the promise of hope and change four years ago, won a second term Tuesday night on a scaled-back agenda of gradual but steady progress to heal the economy and solve America's other major problems.
Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney with slightly more than 50 percent of the popular vote and a majority of the 270 electoral votes needed for a victory, according to projections by CNN, Fox, and other television networks. The outcome was in line with polls that gave Obama a small but enduring lead in the past week.
Obama and his advisers were jubilant at his victory, but capturing only a bare majority of the popular vote is likely to make governing more difficult for him. The nation's divisions are clear, and it will be tough for Obama to argue that he has a mandate. On Tuesday night, House Speaker John Boehner, noting that the GOP will hold its House majority, said Obama has no mandate for tax increases, an issue of vehement contention for the past two years. The Senate will remain in Democratic hands but without the super-majority needed to pass major legislation. In short, it was an election that reaffirmed the status quo.
Obama, the first African-American president, won despite widespread concern about the economy and dissatisfaction with his record in creating jobs. Thirty-nine percent of voters said the economy is getting better, 31 percent said the economy is getting worse, and 28 percent said the economy is staying about the same, according to exit polls reported by CNN.
But Romney wasn't able to persuade enough voters that he would be both a superior alternative in handling the economy and at the same time a committed advocate for the middle class. Romney was preferred over Obama on the question of who could best handle the economy, 50 percent to 47 percent. But 52 percent said Obama was more in touch with them than Romney, at 44 percent.
Obama's coalition was similar if smaller than the one he rode to victory in 2008. He won the support of huge majorities of African Americans, Hispanics, and single women, and solid majorities of young people and new voters, according to exit polls. Romney won a majority of the white vote, especially white men, independents, and conservative Christians.
State by state, Obama captured not only the big traditionally Democratic strongholds of New York and California, but also most of the battleground states that remained competitive to the end and made all the difference. They included Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Romney won the South along with traditionally conservative states including Arizona, Indiana, and Missouri.
As an immediate result, the divided outcome will probably make it more difficult to resolve the deadlock over the "fiscal cliff" that now looms over the nation's capital. At year's end, there will be automatic tax hikes and massive spending cuts unless the president and Congress reach an agreement to prevent them. Months ago, all sides accepted this triggering mechanism to force a compromise in order to reduce the deficit. But few leaders in Washington thought the system was so dysfunctional that it would actually come to the brink.
By choosing Obama, the nation kept in place his commitment to using government to solve big problems, such as bailing out the auto industry and the financial industry. But there was also widespread concern about rising federal deficits, Obama's nearly $1 trillion economic stimulus package, and his health-care overhaul as an example of excessive federal power.
Similarly, voters told exit pollsters Tuesday that they thought Obama would do a better job on foreign policy because of several factors. Among them were his scaling back the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his order for the mission that killed terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, and his pledge to shift money from the military to "nation building" at home. Romney seemed too bellicose and less sure-footed to many voters.
Even though Obama's main claim to history so far is his status as the first African- American president—the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya—race was not a big factor in the campaign, largely ignored by the candidates or their surrogates. Similarly, the other big potential social issue of religion—Romney was the first Mormon nominee of a major party—was also barely mentioned. If voters made up their minds based on race and religion, few admitted it to pollsters.
Instead, voters for many months said that their top priority was strengthening the economy, mainly creating jobs. And in the end, more voters considered Obama a better and safer bet than Romney because the economy ended its freefall on his watch. Obama had argued that he inherited the economic mess from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Romney didn't appear to offer much new or different from the Republican policies of Bush, whom most voters blamed for the severe recession of 2007 and 2008.
Obama's campaign and the Democrats spent many months attacking Romney as a plutocrat, a man of privilege, and an ex-investor who didn't understand the middle class and was more intent on promoting the rich and big corporations. This image badly hurt Romney.
Obama's campaign used a brilliant get-out-the-vote strategy engineered by campaign leaders Jim Messina and David Axelrod and encouraged by White House senior adviser David Plouffe, and it helped to put him over the top. Team Obama relied on technology and micro-targeting to identify voter concerns, focus on them, and get their supporters to cast ballots. They also outdid Romney's campaign in encouraging their supporters to vote absentee and through early voting systems that are becoming increasingly popular in many states.
This emphasis on organization—what the political professionals call "the ground game"—was crucial to Obama's success. This wasn't surprising considering that Obama spent his early years as a community organizer in Chicago.
Now comes the hard part, as Obama goes back to the difficult business of governing. His honeymoon, if he has one, won't last long because Washington came out of Election Day just as divided as before.
- Photos: 100 Years of Presidential Races
- Live Blog: Opinion and Analysis From Election Night
- Political Cartoonists Take On the 2012 Election
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," on usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook or reach him at email@example.com.