President Obama won re-election to the White House on Tuesday night, holding together enough of his hope-and-change coalition to repeat his historic 2008 election and surviving a sluggish economy and a fractured electorate that desired a change but failed to find Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney a credible alternative.
His renewed lease on the White House gives him a chance to see his health care law take full effect in 2014, another opportunity to push for the tax increases he declared to be part of his campaign mandate, and pressure to deliver on his promise of immigration reform.
"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, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come," a ebullient president said at his victory rally in Chicago as the clock neared 2 a.m. on the East Coast.
Mr. Obama painted his re-election as the latest chapter in America's 200-year-old quest "of perfecting our union" and vowed to turn his attention to trying to forge bipartisan compromises on immigration, energy and the deficit.
"Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you made me a better president," he said. "And with your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever."
He and Mr. Romney combined to spend about $2 billion in their fight for the White House, essentially killing the public campaign financing system. That figure doesn't include the hundreds of millions spent by congressional candidates or outside groups.
The presidential race was called about 11:15 EST, just minutes after West Coast states closed their polls and after Ohio was called for Mr. Obama, eliminating Mr. Romney's path to victory.
Still, Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden enter their second terms somewhat wounded. Mr. Obama becomes only the second president in history to win a second term with fewer Electoral College votes than his first win — meaning he returns to the White House with a limited mandate.
He also will be facing a divided Congress, where Republicans kept control of the House and Democrats maintained their majority in the Senate.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said the split results meant voters backed the GOP's vision.
"We offered solutions, and the American people want solutions, and tonight they responded by renewing our Republican House majority," Mr. Boehner said at a victory party.
He also took aim at Mr. Obama's claim that his re-election would clear the path for tax increases on the wealthy, with the speaker saying flatly "there's no mandate for raising taxes."
But with Democrats on the brink of not only holding the Senate but possibly expanding their majority, Mr. Boehner and his GOP troops remain isolated.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, urged the GOP to work with him.
"Now that the election is over, it's time to put politics aside and work together to find solutions," Mr. Reid said. "The strategy of obstruction, gridlock and delay was soundly rejected by the American people. Now, they are looking to us for solutions."
But voters, in returning a Democrat to the White House, Democrats to a majority in the Senate and Republicans to control of the House, appeared to be asking for a do-over after two years of gridlock in the least productive Congress since records began to be kept after World War II.
Mr. Obama eked out his popular-vote victory with a late-campaign surge that appeared powered in part by his response to Hurricane Sandy, which polls showed appeared to sway some late support his way. The storm also pushed both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney off the campaign trail for several days last week, potentially undercutting the Republican's momentum.
Mr. Romney conceded the race just before 1 a.m. Wednesday morning to several thousand people at the Boston Convention Center.
He said that he called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory and wished him good luck going forward.
"I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters," Mr. Romney said. "This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray the president be successful in guiding our nation."
Mr. Obama won by taking advantage of what amounted to a never-ending campaign that picked up right after he won office in 2008.
That meant he took a phenomenal "ground game" of volunteers and local campaign offices into Tuesday's election, and it appeared to pay off across the country, where he kept states such as North Carolina and Virginia close, and easily outdistanced Mr. Romney in states such as Pennsylvania, denying the Republican a chance to expand the playing field.
"Mitt Romney has done a better job with their ground game than [Republican nominee John] McCain did in '08, but they've generally given very short shrift to their ground game, really focusing on their ground game only in the last few weeks," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. "We've had a very strong ground game since 2007, and I think that's bearing fruit tonight."
In Congress, voters again opted for division.
That Senate result marks a major win for Democrats and a huge disappointment for Republicans, who earlier this year had eyed as many as a half-dozen pickups which would have given them a majority.
The divided Congress is likely to make life difficult for all sides.
"It's going to be complicated under any scenario," said Darrell M. West, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Neither side is going to want to do things that's going to help the other."
In the nation's statehouses, the GOP said it netted at least one governorship, giving them 30 of the country's 50 chief executives.
Exit polls showed about 60 percent of voters rated the economy as the top issue, though only about 40 percent said they saw progress on that front.
The exit polls also showed voters still blamed President George W. Bush more than Mr. Obama for the continued economic troubles.
Mr. Obama, 51, a former U.S. senator who makes his home in Chicago, made history in 2008 by becoming the first black man to win the White House. His inauguration drew a giant crowd, and he took office amid hope that he could unite a fractured country after President Bush and right an economy reeling from the Wall Street collapse just months before his election.
He had major legislative accomplishments during his first two years: With huge majorities in Congress, Democrats passed the economic stimulus, new financial market regulations and the health care reform that has become Mr. Obama's signature achievement.
But a voter backlash in 2010, which Mr. Obama deemed a "shellacking," gave the GOP control of the House, curbed Democrats' majority in the Senate and left conservatives pushing for deep spending cuts to try to contain the red ink that spilled across government balance sheets.
The country ran trillion-dollar deficits all four years Mr. Obama was in office, and the overall national debt topped $16 trillion.
Amid that playing field, Mr. Romney, 65, a former one-term governor of Massachusetts who made his personal fortune at the helm of Bain Capital, vowed to bring bipartisanship and a businessman's can-do know-how to Washington.
He also promised big ideas, including an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid to try to cap the rising costs of entitlements, which threaten to crowd out all other federal spending in coming decades.
Mr. Romney underscored his commitment by picking as his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, whose budget plans have deeply divided Congress over the past two years.
But Mr. Ryan at least was able to say that his fellow Republicans in the House passed a budget.
Not so for the Senate, where Democrats have failed for three straight years to pass a blueprint for spending.
Passing a budget is just one of the challenges awaiting the election victors.
The next Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3, and Mr. Obama retakes the oath of office Jan. 20.
The government is poised to run another trillion-dollar deficit in 2013, and the gross federal debt has topped $16 trillion. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, but Washington has left few tools untried in its push to spur job creation.
Some work won't even wait for the new year, however.
Congress returns next week for a lame-duck session to grapple with the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire Jan. 1, and/or the $110 billion in automatic spending cuts, which are due to take effect Jan. 2.
With the election so narrowly decided, the winner was unlikely to carry much of a mandate into the next term. Combined with a split Congress, that meant there was little chance of easy answers to the items stacked up on the agenda.
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