By 10:45 p.m. E.T., gongs were ringing at Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago as key states were called for the incumbent. New Hampshire. Bong. Pennsylvania. Bong. Wisconsin. Bong. In Boston, home to Mitt Romney's campaign, a glum crowd of Republicans began to thin. Half headed to the bars, the other half to the exits. A few hours later, it was all over. "I pray that the President will be successful in guiding our nation," Romney told the crowd in a short, dignified concession speech.
In Chicago's Grant Park, the scene of his historic 2008 victory, Obama took his time addressing the nation that had extended his lease on the White House. "Tonight in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up. We have fought our way back," he said. "We know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come."
The election once looked as if it would turn on the U.S. economy, still experiencing aftershocks from the 2008 financial crisis. And maybe it did - just not in the way Republicans had planned. Romney's blue-chip business background seemed the perfect credential with which to challenge Obama, who entered the White House just as the depths of the recession became apparent. But after catastrophic downturns in employment, consumer confidence and the housing market early in Obama's first term, the economy stabilized in the past year. The result: a frustratingly slow but palpable recovery that gave an unlikely edge to the incumbent. The revitalization of the auto industry in particular, enabled by a 2009 bailout that Romney opposed, might have been the difference in industrial Ohio.
Romney began the general election with a simple pitch: Obama tried to fix the economy and failed. But by August, the Republican had changed tacks. Rather than pluck a humdrum GOPer from a swing state, he named as his running mate Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, a budget-slashing crusader with dramatic ideas about how to reform federal health entitlements. It wasn't enough to flip Wisconsin in the end. But Romney's selection of Ryan was never a narrow electoral play. It was a signal that he saw his challenge in a different light. The base might rally to him. His aides started to talk about a "choice election" in which Romney offered not just an indictment of Obama's policies but also the promise of a brighter future under bold Republican leadership.
The economic and electoral realities that prompted Romney's strategic shift did not change. Polling in late summer showed Obama with a narrow edge where it counted. And despite a spike for Obama after his party's September convention and a swoon the other way after his sleepy showing in the first debate, the race remained remarkably static, a noisy spat over the loyalties of a few undecided voters who hadn't paid enough attention to get sucked into the partisan tribalism that is modern American politics. After the two parties spent more than $2 billion on the most technologically complex campaign in history and an unprecedented wave of third-party groups spent hundreds of millions more, Obama won Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa - just as the polls predicted.
With his victory Tuesday night, Obama maintained command of a country with real potential for growth as it escapes the pull of the worst economic crisis in generations. But the obstacles are many. Congress remains divided, with control of both houses unchanged by an election that upheld an uneasy status quo. Deadlock threatens to turn routine budget negotiations into a fiscal emergency, with deep cuts to the military and social services scheduled to go into effect in January unless Congress finds a solution. Obama's agenda for his second term - reordering the bloated tax code, reforming the nation's immigration laws and brokering a deal to control the explosion of long-term deficits - looks no easier to achieve now than it did before Tuesday.
How Republicans react to Romney's loss will likely determine the country's path. After John McCain's defeat in 2008, a splenetic conservative base formed the Tea Party to oust the moderates and establishmentarians who had failed them. The result, aided by a tanking economy, was a midterm sweep in 2010 that strengthened the party's right wing and delivered the House of Representatives to the Republicans, who used it to oppose Obama at every turn. If the GOP blames Romney for this election's outcome, another conservative retrenchment could mean more gridlock and more primary bloodletting. But if the fault falls on conservative candidates like Missouri's Todd Akin and Indiana's Richard Mourdock - a group that not only weighed down the top of the ticket but also may have cost the GOP control of the Senate - things could be different. Republicans might rethink the wisdom of playing to a shrinking coalition, as Democrats run up margins with women and Latinos. More important, they might resign themselves to work with the President they couldn't get rid of.