The outcome was surprisingly swift. The TV networks called the race against Republican Mitt Romney less than 20 minutes after the polls closed on the West Coast, as a succession of battleground states tipped the president's way.
Claiming victory before a roaring, flag-waving crowd in his hometown of Chicago, Obama summoned a bit of the poetry absent throughout much of the acrid campaign. He told supporters that the country was moving forward “because of you.”
“You reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope,” he said, “the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an America family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and one people.”
He vowed to reach out to congressional 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,” he said.
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founding,” he went on, “the idea that if you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like.… It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you're willing to try.”
Romney, standing alone on a flag-bedecked stage in Boston, spoke before Obama took the stage.
“This is a time of great challenge for America,” he told disconsolate supporters, his voice worn and expression taut, “and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”
For all the agitation and unhappiness with Washington, a constant this election season, the federal government will look next year much as it does today. Republicans held onto the House majority they captured in 2010 and Democrats beat back long odds to keep control of the Senate.
For Obama, 51, winning a second term proved far more difficult than his barrier-breaking romp four years ago to become the nation's first black president. His reelection drive bore only a faint resemblance to the uplift and aspiration of 2008. He did, however, manage to replicate his overwhelming support among blacks and Latinos — the fastest-growing part of the electorate — and again won among women.
New campaign laws produced a flood of more than $2.5 billion in spending, much of it from independent groups. There were more than 1 million TV ads, many scathingly negative. Even so, the political map ended up looking much as it did in 2008. The only states that flipped to Romney, pending final results, were North Carolina and Indiana, both icing on Obama's first victory.
Though Florida, one of the hardest-fought states, was too close to call, a victory there would only pad Obama's electoral vote total well past the 270 needed to claim the White House. Of the handful of states in which the fiercest combat took place, Romney claimed only North Carolina, while Obama carried Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado.
The president did make history of a fashion Tuesday, becoming the first incumbent since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term with unemployment above 7.4%. At 7.9%, the jobless rate stands a tick up from when Obama took office amid the worst economic downturn since the Depression.
Not surprisingly, exit polls showed the touch-and-go economy was voter's overriding concern, cited by 6 in 10 of those surveyed. Fewer than half, 4 in 10, believed the economy was getting better. But Obama was insulated to a great extent: Just about half laid the blame for the struggling economy on his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
There were big stakes in the election: the fate of tax cuts scheduled to lapse at year's end, the likelihood of one or more Supreme Court appointments and, more fundamentally, two visions for the proper role of government, embodied by competing plans for healthcare and the future of Medicare and Medicaid.
Obama vowed to let the tax cuts expire. Romney promised to repeal Obama's signature healthcare law as his first order of business.
But a smallness suffused much of the campaign.
The president's strategists filleted the electorate to pursue narrow slices with special appeals: immigration reform to spur Latino turnout, cheaper student loans to entice young voters, legal abortion and access to contraception to persuade women to support the president's reelection.