Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - In Tuesday's victory, Barack Obama not only won his second term.
He protected his first.
At a tumultuous victory celebration in Chicago early Wednesday morning, the re-elected president called for bipartisanship in addressing four ambitious priorities over the next four years: reducing the deficit, overhauling the tax code, revising immigration laws and reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Left unsaid was the reality that he also can now implement the hard-won achievements from his first four years - the health-care law called the Affordable Care Act and the Wall Street regulatory regime known as Dodd-Frank - which Republican rival Mitt Romney had promised to begin dismantling "on Day One" in the Oval Office.
"If he had lost there would have still been the legacy coming from the fact he was the first African American to have won the White House," says Robert Dallek, one of a group of historians who has met privately at three White House dinners with Obama. "But now he can hammer into place the Affordable Care Act that would have been in jeopardy if he had lost the election. Now it will be a fixed and featured part of his presidential terms."
What's more, Obama will be in a position to reap the advantages of governing at a time of growth, if the slow-but-steady recovery continues to gather steam - a stark contrast to the spiraling economic crisis that greeted him when he took office in 2009.
He already was a groundbreaking president, as the first person of color to win the nation's highest office. By defeating Romney, he also joins the elite ranks of just 16 other men in history who have managed to win the White House twice.
"Obama was elected twice by a majority of the vote, the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to do that, and he was re-elected despite extraordinary circumstances on the economy," says Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a Democratic-leaning think tank. That is "an affirmation of him and of the country giving him their trust to continue the agenda and finish it."
Rosenberg predicts Obama will be "very aggressive" and in the strongest political position he has been since after his first inauguration. "He's a better and smarter president than he was, and he's learned a lot over the last four years," he says.
Obama ruefully noted at campaign rallies that his hair is grayer than it was in 2008. He bears the scars from partisan battles and the nation's economic travails. "Obviously, we've gone through four years that have been very tough," the president told USA TODAY in an interview just before the Democratic convention. "I'm older. Hopefully, I'm a little wiser."
The morning after the inaugural balls on Jan. 21, he still will face a divided government, as he has since the 2010 midterm elections. While Democrats expanded control of the Senate Tuesday, Republicans maintained their majority in the House of Representatives.
He'll also face a sharply divided America. He won by a narrower margin than in 2008 - the first second-term president in modern times who failed to carry a bigger margin when he won re-election - and he commanded support from only about four in 10 white voters.
On the other hand, Obama has forged and energized a coalition of the most rapidly growing parts of the U.S. electorate: Hispanics, African Americans and members of the young Millennial generation, plus some whites, especially highly educated women. If it holds, that coalition could give Democrats the sort of enduring majority that FDR built in his era.
The opening test of Obama's second term will come soon in negotiations with Congress to avoid falling over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year. Without a deal, the Bush tax cuts will expire, raising taxes on everyone, and sweeping spending cuts will go into effect at the Pentagon and across domestic programs. Some economists warn that could send the economy back into recession.
Those talks will help define the fiscal possibilities of his second term and provide an early signal of whether there is going to be a ceasefire in the partisan wars.
"How the fiscal cliff goes will set the terms of the second term," says Neera Tanden, a former Obama adviser who now heads the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. "That will have an impact beyond six months."
Where's the mandate?
In this year's campaign, Obama didn't do much to establish a policy mandate for his victory. Instead, he and his allies focused in large part on undermining Romney, depicting him as a heartless corporate raider with little empathy for the lives of most Americans.
It worked. In surveys of voters as they left polling places, one in five voters said the most important quality in determining their vote was that the candidate "care about people like me;" they broke by 4-1 for Obama. Three in 10 said the most important quality was having "a vision for the future;" a majority of those supported Romney.
"It is not as though the president announced an ambitious second-term agenda," says William Galston, a former White House domestic-policy adviser to President Clinton. "He may have one in mind, but he has not done much to share it with the American people."
The contrast is stark with the soaring expectations for his first term, when he vowed to change the way Washington works - he no longer suggests that's in his power - while also promising to address health care, climate change, immigration and more.
"The first term was animated by this remarkable historic moment of electing an African-American president, by an oversized and perhaps unrealistic dream of post-partisan politics," says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "On every one of those dimensions, he's in a different situation. He's now faced with a divided government and what will likely be an intransigent Republican majority in the House. He's come to grips now with the limits of American fiscal policy and the need to scale back some entitlement programs the Democrats dearly love, as well as having a root canal with House Republicans to get some revenue."
The drama of his first victory and its celebration in Chicago's Grant Park has been replaced by a more workaday tone, Jacobs says. "The rising crescendo of orchestra music of Grant Park," where Obama celebrated his first election, has been replaced by "the work of boring holes in hard wood."
The campaign debate and the election returns could help on some of the challenges Obama cited:
"Reducing our deficit." On the core conflict over Obama's demands for a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction - that is, to raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year - the president can tell Republicans he has won the argument. In the exit polls, six in 10 said taxes should be increased, and nearly half said they should go up only for the most affluent. Only about a third endorsed Romney's argument that they shouldn't be raised for anyone.
"Reforming our tax code." The last time the tax code was simplified was in 1986, the signature second-term achievement for Ronald Reagan, and the idea continues to command bipartisan support. During the campaign, Romney also endorsed the idea of a tax overhaul, calling for eliminating loopholes and some deductions and reducing rates while keeping the changes revenue neutral.
"Fixing our immigration system." Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to pursue comprehensive immigration reform that would address the situation of millions of immigrants who are in the United States illegally. He settled instead for using executive action to grant temporary legal status to some young people who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Now, the crucial and overwhelming support Obama got from Latino voters - a significant factor in his victory in swing states including Florida, Colorado and Nevada - increase the political imperative for him to act. The political landscape may also have improved if Republicans are looking for ways to improve the GOP's standing with Hispanics.
"Freeing ourselves from foreign oil." This was another reprise from 2008, when he vowed to end U.S. reliance on oil imports from world hotspots within 10 years. As president, he has pledged to cut oil imports in half by the end of this decade. In fact, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence, which remains an elusive goal.
On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, some heard the sound of gridlock cracking in remarks by House Speaker John Boehner to reporters. His words were so carefully calibrated that he took the step, unusual for him, of reading them off a Teleprompter.
"Like many Americans, I hoped the presidential election would turn out differently," Boehner began, but went on: "The American people have spoken. They have re-elected President Obama. And they have again elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. If there is a mandate in yesterday's results, it is a mandate for us to find a way to work together on solutions to the challenges we face together as a nation."
He said congressional Republicans would be "willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions," if the White House would consider curbs in the rising costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. He said a deal to avert the fiscal cliff could open the door to an overhaul of the tax code next year.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sounded more unyielding.
"The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president's first term," he said in a written statement before Boehner spoke. "They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together" with Congress.
Second terms have been notoriously unkind to modern presidents.
After George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, the public turned against the Iraq war and derided his administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina; he saw the economy sink into a crisis his successor inherited. Bill Clinton's second term was defined by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment. Ronald Reagan managed to push through a tax overhaul in his second term, but he also became enmeshed in the Iran-contra affair.
Still, the presidents regarded as the most influential in U.S. history have generally served more than one term, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. With the possible exception of James Polk, who in a single term expanded U.S. territory to the West, it generally has taken presidents more than four years to leave a lasting mark on the nation.
"It's hard to think of a truly consequential president who served only one term," Galston says, though Lincoln's second term was cut short by assassination. "From a broad historical perspective, making big change, ensuring its implementation and weaving it into the fabric of American society is at least a two-term enterprise."
Now, Obama will have an opportunity to do that.
TyRon Turner, a small-business owner from Inglewood, Calif., traveled to Chicago for Obama's victory party. Wednesday, he was standing in a sweatshirt and knit hat at the barricades that block the public from Obama's home, waiting for the chance to applaud as the president passed by in a motorcade.
He said the country's deep partisan divisions were apparent the night before in the jubilant TV pictures from Chicago and the morose ones from Boston, where Romney conceded the election.
"Both sides have to give up something," he told a White House reporter. "We have to clear the slate. Start over."