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For President Obama, now comes a second chance. An electorate that considers the country to be on the wrong track nonetheless agreed to renew his contract in hopes that the next four years will be better than the last.
A weary but triumphant president took the stage in Chicago early Wednesday morning before a jubilant crowd, clearly relieved to have survived a challenge that threatened to end his storybook political career. While he was speaking of America, he could have been talking about himself when he told the audience: “We have picked ourselves up. We have fought our way back.”
Mr. Obama emerges from a scalding campaign and a four-year education in the realities of Washington a far different figure from the man sent to the White House in 2008. What faces him in this next stage of his journey are not overinflated expectations of partisan, racial and global healing, but granular negotiations over spending cuts and tax increases plus a looming showdown with Iran.
Few if any expect him to seriously change Washington anymore; most voters just seemed to want him to make it function. His remarkable personal story and trailblazing role are just a vague backdrop at this point to a campaign that often seemed to lack a singular, overriding mission beyond stopping his challenger from taking the country in another direction.
More seasoned and scarred, less prone to grandiosity and perhaps even less idealistic, Mr. Obama returns for a second term with a Congress still at least partly controlled by an opposition party that will claim a mandate of its own. He will have to choose between conciliation and confrontation, or find a way to toggle back and forth between the two.
“Will he be more pugnacious and more willing to swing for the fences on domestic issues, judicial appointments and so forth?” asked Christopher Edley Jr., a dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, and a longtime Obama friend who has been disappointed at times. “You can react to a narrow victory by trimming your sails, or you can decide ‘What the hell, let’s sail into the storm and make sure this has meant something.’ “
The champagne bottles from victory celebrations in Chicago will barely be emptied before Mr. Obama has to begin answering that question. The coming end-of-the-year fiscal cliff prompted by trillions of dollars of automatic tax increases and spending cuts could force Mr. Obama to define priorities that will shape the rest of his presidency before he even puts his hand on the Bible to take the oath a second time.
Mr. Obama has expressed hope that “the fever may break” after the election and that the parties come together, a theory encouraged by allies like Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts. “I’ve talked with colleagues in the Senate who for months have told me they’re very anxious to get beyond the gridlock and craziness,” Mr. Kerry said.
If that proves overly optimistic, allies said, then the president’s re-election puts him in a stronger position than in the past. “I actually think he’s holding a lot of cards coming off a win,” said John D. Podesta, who led Mr. Obama’s transition team four years ago. “He can’t be overturned by veto, so he can create a certain set of demands on Republicans that they’re going to have to deal with.”
But even as votes were coming in, Republicans were making clear that Mr. Obama will have to deal with them, too.
“If he wins, he wins — but at the same time, voters will clearly vote for a Republican House,” said Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican who shouted “You lie!” at Mr. Obama during a speech to Congress. “The consequence of that is our voters really anticipate and count on us holding firm.”
It may have been inevitable that Mr. Obama could not live up to the heavy mantle of hope and change he assumed in 2008 as the first African-American to be elected president. Inheriting an economy in crisis, he pushed through a sweeping stimulus package, the health care law and Wall Street regulatory measures, and he headed off another depression. But he failed to change the culture of Washington or bring unemployment down to healthy levels.
By 2010, amid a Tea Party revolt over rising national debt and expanding government, his party lost the House. He spent the last two years trying to hang onto the White House and preserve his accomplishments.
Now the struggle for re-election will be replaced by a struggle for Mr. Obama’s political soul. Liberals who swallowed their misgivings during the campaign said they would resume pressure on the president to fight for their ideas. Other Democrats, and some Republicans, will push him to be more open to the views of those who voted against him.
“He needs to do something dramatic to reset the atmosphere and in a dramatic way demonstrate that he is very serious about finding bipartisan solutions,” said David Boren, a former senator who now serves as the president of the University of Oklahoma and as a co-chairman of the president’s intelligence advisory board. Mr. Boren suggested that Mr. Obama appoint “a unity cabinet” bringing together Republicans and Democrats.
Ilya Sheyman, the campaign director of MoveOn.org, said Mr. Obama’s base would be hungry for action, not accommodation. “We see the president’s re-election as a precondition for progress and not progress in itself,” he said.
Likewise, Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy for the United We Dream Network, a group advocating for young immigrants, said her members would push Mr. Obama to revamp the immigration system.
“We will hold the president accountable not only on his promise on legislative relief, but also what he can do administratively,” she said.
Mr. Obama seemed to address this tension in the closing speeches of his campaign. “I want to see more cooperation in Washington,” he said in Mentor, Ohio. “But if the price of peace in Washington” means slashing student aid, reversing his health care program or cutting people from Medicaid, he added, “that’s not a price I’ll pay.”
Still, Mr. Obama arguably did not help himself with a campaign strategy that left many issues unaddressed. While he and his aides indicated occasionally in interviews that he hoped to tackle the immigration system and climate change in a second term, he rarely mentioned them in his campaign speeches. As a result, it may be hard for him to claim a mandate on those issues.
“Nothing about the campaign has approved a mandate or an agenda,” said Ed Rogers, a White House official under President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush who is now a top lobbyist. “I don’t think the House will meet him where he wants to be met. I’m just pessimistic about our president having much authority or much juice. Nobody’s going to be afraid of him.”
Mr. Obama is acutely aware that time for progress is limited in any second term, as he increasingly becomes a lame duck. “The first 14 months are productive, the last 14 months are productive, and you sag in the middle,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Mr. Obama’s first White House chief of staff.
Given that dynamic, Democrats said Mr. Obama must move quickly to establish command of the political process. “If you don’t put anything on the board, you die faster,” said Patrick Griffin, who was President Bill Clinton’s liaison to Congress and is now associate director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “If you have no credibility, if you can’t establish some sort of victory here, you will be marginalized by your own party and the other side very quickly.”
All of that felt a thousand miles off on Tuesday night in Chicago. After all the debates and ads and rallies, it was a moment for Mr. Obama and his team to savor. There was a time even before he became president that Mr. Obama worried about his meteoric rise, telling aides he did not want to be “like a comet streaking across the sky” because “comets eventually burn up.” For now, the comet streaks on.
©2012 The New York Times News Service