WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama faces a new urgent task now that he has a second term, working with a status-quo Congress to address an impending financial crisis that economists say could send the country back into recession.
“You made your voice heard,” Obama said in his acceptance speech, signaling that he believes the bulk of the country is behind his policies. It’s a sticking point for House Republicans, sure to balk at that.
The same voters who gave Obama four more years in office also elected a divided Congress, sticking with the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans kept their House majority.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke of a dual mandate. “If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs,” he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had a more harsh assessment.
“The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” McConnell said. “They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together” with a balanced Congress.
Obama’s more narrow victory was nothing like the jubilant celebration in 2008, when his hope-and-change election as the nation’s first black president captivated the world. This time, Obama ground it out with a stay-the-course pitch that essentially boiled down to a plea for more time to make things right and a hope that Congress will be more accommodating than in the past.
Even his victory party was more subdued. His campaign said Wednesday that 20,000 people came to hear his speech in downtown Chicago, compared with 200,000 four years ago.
The most pressing challenges immediately ahead for the 44th president are all too familiar: an economy still baby-stepping its way toward full health; 23 million people out of work or in search of better jobs; civil war in Syria; a menacing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Sharp differences with Republicans in Congress on taxes, spending, deficit reduction, immigration and more await. While Republicans control the House, Democrats have at least 53 votes in the Senate and Republicans 45. One newly elected independent isn’t saying which party he’ll side with, and North Dakota’s race was not yet called.
Obama’s list of promises to keep includes many holdovers he was unable to deliver on in his first term, such as rolling back tax cuts for upper-income people, overhauling immigration policy and reducing federal deficits. Six in 10 voters said in exit polls that taxes should be increased, and nearly half of voters said taxes should be increased on incomes over $250,000, as Obama has called for.
“It’s very clear from the exit polling that a majority of Americans recognize that we need to share responsibility for reducing the deficit,” Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told CNN. “That means asking higher-income earners to contribute more to reducing the deficit.”
But Sara Taylor Fagen, who served as political director in President George W. Bush’s second term, warned the current White House to pay heed to the closely divided electorate, a lesson her party learned after 2004. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had 50 percent to 48 percent for Romney.
“It’ll be interesting if the Obama team misinterprets the size of their victory,” Fagen said. “I think if you look back at history, we pushed Social Security and the Congress wasn’t ready for that and wasn’t going to do it. And had President Bush gone after immigration, we may be sitting in a very different position as a party.”
Obama predicted in the waning days of the campaign that his victory would motivate Republicans to make a deal on immigration policy next year to make up for having “so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour agreed that a lesson of 2012 is for his Republican Party to change the party’s approach on immigration.
“Republicans say, ‘We don’t want to reward people for breaking the law,’” Barbour told CBS. “The way we need to look at it is, how are we going to grow the American economy and where does our immigration policy fit into that?”
Even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan. 20, he must deal with the threatened “fiscal cliff.” A combination of automatic tax increases and steep across-the-board spending cuts are set to take effect in January if Washington doesn’t quickly reach a budget deal. Experts have warned that the economy could tip back into recession without an agreement.
Newly elected Democrats signaled they want compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff.
Sen.-elect Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor who defeated Republican George Allen, said on NBC’s “Today” show that voters sent a message they want “cooperative government.” But he also says the election results show that the public doesn’t want “all the levers in one party’s hands” on Capitol Hill.
From Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren said on “CBS This Morning” that those who voted for her opponent, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, expressed a desire for lawmakers to work together. She says: “I heard that loud and clear.”
Obama repeated his campaign slogan of moving “forward” repeatedly in a victory speech early Wednesday in his hometown of Chicago.
“We will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there,” he said. “As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems, or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus, and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.”
Former Obama adviser Anita Dunn told “CBS This Morning” that the president made it clear in his acceptance speech that he will be reaching out, and she warned GOP House leaders, representing Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, to keep in mind that their voters also wanted to keep Obama.
“Clearly there’s a lot of momentum and a lot of incentive for people to work together to really find answers to the challenges,” she said.
One of those lawmakers Dunn was referring to was GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who said Wednesday that he plans to return as House Budget Committee chairman. He’ll be involved in negotiations with the White House over fiscal policy, while keeping an eye on a possible presidential run in 2016.
Even though the tea party lost some ground with defeat of some of the movement-backed incumbents, Obama still will have to deal with a large faction of those lawmakers in the House and Senate. Republican Ted Cruz, who handily won his race for a Senate seat in Texas with tea party support, said he plans on compromising only if Obama does the same.
“But let me be clear, if he doesn’t, if he intends to continue down the path of the last four years, more and more spending and debt and taxes and regulations that kill jobs, then I will do everything I can to help lead the effort to stop that, because I think continuing down that path is damaging this country and would hurt an awful lot of Americans,” Cruz said on CBS.
Obama’s re-election means his signature health care overhaul will endure, as will the Wall Street overhaul enacted after the economic meltdown. The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan will continue apace. With an aging roster of justices, the president probably will have at least one more nomination to the Supreme Court.
A second term is sure to produce turnover in his Cabinet. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has made it clear he wants to leave at the end of Obama’s first term but is expected to remain in the post until a successor is confirmed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s rival for the presidency four years ago, is ready to leave. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta isn’t expected to stay on.
Some Americans were hopeful for progress in Obama’s second term.
“He may not have done a great job in my mind but I kinda trust him,” Jerry Shul said Wednesday morning in New York’s Times Square. “And I feel like he’s gonna keep trying and I feel like when people keep trying in you favor things work out. I have faith in him, I have faith he will get with the Republicans and get something done.”
Overall, Obama won 25 states and the District of Columbia. Romney won 24 states. Florida was too close to call Wednesday morning. The unofficial count had Obama with a 46,000-vote lead, but Florida historically has left as many as 5 percent of its votes uncounted until after Election Day.
By NANCY BENAC and NEDRA PICKLER
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