With billions of dollars spent and millions of charges and countercharges lodged in an almost interminably acrimonious campaign, the result is a political landscape virtually unchanged. What can the American people expect, more of the same gridlock, partisanship, despair and irresponsibility -- the apocalyptic Four Horsemen of recent modern politics?
The dire consequences of that are easy to predict -- and will be by Cassandras whose stock-and-trade in punditry is to wallow in the worst-case scenario. The first test will come quickly. The current Congress has a little less than two months to prevent the nation from tumbling over a fiscal cliff into chaos, when an automatic $600 billion in budget reductions are set and the Bush-era tax cuts are scheduled to expire. Fortunately, in a show of immediate post-election conciliation, both sides seem willing to talk about it.
Even if that catastrophe is averted, though, the chances are slim for better things from a new government that mirrors the current power structure. The re-elected president will face the same monumental problems he has been unsuccessful at resolving in the last four years. That isn't to say his Republican challenger would have had a better chance under similar divided authority.
With Barack Obama's re-election, one can probably throw out all the historic models mandating that any incumbent president would not get a second chance with an unacceptable unemployment rate, the worst growth recovery outside of the Great Depression, and a half dozen other negatives on his record. He won in beleaguered places like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, where voters apparently decided the devil they know is better than the devil they don't.
Mitt Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate didn't help him much. He lost Ryan's home state, and the congressman's controversial Medicare proposal hurt Romney in places like Florida, with its large, older population. And Ryan's religious rigidity on right to life didn't help with women voters. The voting demographic has changed dramatically. It is less white and more conscious of its individual rights.
Actually, Romney lost this election in the primaries, where, despite facing a ragtag group of opponents, he sold his soul to the far right to win the GOP nomination -- disaffecting women on reproductive rights, Hispanics on immigration and gays on same-sex marriage. His efforts to move more to the center after his nomination made voters suspicious. While he won in Indiana and Missouri Tuesday, the party's senatorial candidates who held extreme views lost, making the Senate a more solid Democratic bastion.
But that is all for the historians to sort out. Suffice it to say the outcome was in many ways unsurprising, even as the campaigns appeared to be in a dead heat going into Election Day. Fortunately, the outcome gave Obama more of a mandate than expected.
Now what's important is whether the parties can achieve the detente needed to move the nation forward, to paraphrase Obama. If the incivility, animosity and partisanship of the past four years continue, it is legitimate to ponder whether decades of turmoil and severe loss of American prominence aren't in the offing. Someone has to take charge; obstructionism on both sides of the political aisle isn't conducive to good government.
It will not be easy for Obama, whose personality seems at times to have made negotiating compromise difficult -- although Republicans aren't to be excused from deliberately fomenting gridlock. While every second-term president's decisions are based on possible historic perception, Obama obviously understands that his window of opportunity for achievement is just about two years. After that, jockeying will begin in both parties for the right to succeed him, and every Capitol Hill action will be measured by its impact on 2016.
A strong GOP is necessary for good government, and there is a strong lesson for Republicans here. The party should reassess its seeming disdain for the center. It should soften the tone of its demands on key issues like immigration and realize that overemphasis on social issues has alienated major voting blocs.
What we all can hope for is that not only will the president do a better job of leading, but that statesmanship will find its way back into vogue in the Congress. Good luck.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)