Obama Wins a Clear Victory, but Balance of Power Is Unchanged in Washington

Doug Mills/The New York Times

After $6 billion, two dozen presidential primary election days, a pair of national conventions, four general election debates, hundreds of Congressional contests and more television advertisements than anyone would ever want to watch, the two major political parties in America essentially fought to a standstill.

When all the shouting was done, the American people on Tuesday more or less ratified the status quo that existed at the start of the day: they returned President Obama to the White House for another four years, reaffirmed Republican control of the House and kept the Senate in Democratic hands. As of Wednesday, the margins in the House and the Senate had each changed by just two or three seats.

The tie in effect went to the Democrats, who had more to lose but did not. Not only did they retain the presidency, they held off a concerted drive to take over the Senate and instead added slightly to their majority.

The Republicans lost a signal opportunity to win Senate seats in states that by most measures should be their territory — Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota — while losing seats they had held in Maine and Massachusetts.

For his part, Mr. Obama won a clear victory but less decisively than other presidents who were re-elected. He garnered just 50 percent of the popular vote, three percentage points lower than in 2008, in a sign of just how divided the country remains over his leadership. His margin in the Electoral College was stronger, but even if he wins Florida, which remained too close to call, he will be the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term with fewer electoral votes than in his first election, suggesting a narrowing of his coalition.

The bottom-line scorecard left Washington as divided as ever, with no resolution of most of the fundamental issues at stake. The profound debate that has raged over the size and role of government, the balance between stimulus spending and austerity and the proper level of taxation has not been settled in the least. The next two years could easily duplicate the last two as the parties battle it out.

At least in public, the two sides were pledging on Wednesday that things would change. In his victory speech, the president said he was “looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”

Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, struck a conciliatory tone Wednesday afternoon, saying he was ready to accept a budget deal that raised federal revenues if it was linked to an overhaul of entitlement programs and an overhaul of the tax code.

If nothing else, one issue does seem resolved by the election. The president’s health care program, which Mitt Romney had vowed to begin dismantling on the first day of his presidency, now seems certain to survive. While House Republicans continue to oppose it and may find ways to attack it through legislation, they now know that they do not have the ability to overturn it.

It also may be possible for the two sides to come together on another big issue: immigration. In his victory speech, Mr. Obama listed revamping the system as one of four specific goals. While he made little mention of immigration during campaign speeches, Democrats argue that Republicans may now be willing to find compromise given the election results and the growing power of the Latino vote. Some moderate Republicans agree, although it is not clear whether the party as a whole has come to that conclusion.

But it will be the fiscal issues that will play out in the short term, and both sides quickly moved to define the election results as a validation of their viewpoint.

Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal research group Center for American Progress, called the election “a decisive mandate for a fair tax system where the wealthy contribute to address our deficit challenges.”

Chris Chocola, the president of the conservative antitax group Club for Growth, congratulated House Republicans who had won and praised their “record of fighting to limit government and pass pro-growth policies.”

For now, uncertainty will probably continue for at least a few weeks as the newly re-elected president and re-elected Republicans circle warily and plot their next moves. Whether the talk of cooperation translates into action remains unclear, but many are already skeptical.

Dale Brown, the president of the Financial Services Institute, cited the “closeness of the election results” in urging Mr. Obama to tread lightly on any new regulatory initiatives, a priority for his group. But looking at the enormous fiscal issues confronting the country, Mr. Brown noted that “the next 13 months are critical” because after that, “Congress will be back in re-election mode and will not tackle anything that could put their own re-elects in jeopardy.”

By PETER BAKER – Courtesy: The York Times