Obama faces a more modest second term

Congress will rein in president

President Obama won re-election in part because his supporters favor bigger government — but a divided Congress virtually ensures the president’s initiatives in his second term will be far smaller in scale than Obamacare or an $821 billion plan to stimulate the economy.

In exit polls, 51 percent of voters said government does too many things that are better left to businesses and individuals, while 43 percent said government should do more to solve problems.

But of the group that favors bigger government, 81 percent voted for Mr. Obama and only 17 percent supported Republican Mitt Romney.

Jim Lakely, a co-director at the conservative Heartland Institute in Chicago, said voters “have chosen the empowerment of government over the liberty of the individual and free markets.”

“I believe we’ll find that such a profound rejection of the benefits of free enterprise, economic freedom and personal liberty will not bring us to the promised utopia,” Mr. Lakely said. “It will bring us only the misery we have experienced since 2009. And Americans have now made it harder than ever to reverse.”

In his victory speech early Wednesday in Chicago, Mr. Obama sounded like a leader who is still thinking about big programs. He said his supporters “voted for action, not politics as usual.”

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt; that isn’t weakened by inequality; that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” Mr. Obama said.

But Matt Bennett, vice president of the moderate Third Way think tank in Washington, said Mr. Obama won’t be able to push through any costly, major initiatives in his second term while Republicans control the House and Democrats lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

“There really isn’t another huge, big-government program that he is likely to propose,” Mr. Bennett said. “He has already kind of finished the social safety net — he passed health care. And he has learned that a sweeping, economywide approach to climate change isn’t going to work in Congress. He’s very realistic about who he’s dealing with in Congress. He understands that he has to operate within the realm of the possible.”

That realm is still influenced by lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who said voters “have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term.”

“They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.”

He said Republicans are willing to meet Mr. Obama halfway on a legislative agenda.

Others point out that although Mr. Obama’s supporters favor big government, a majority of those in exit polls said they favor less government.

“The exit polls showed that people overwhelmingly rejected big government intrusion in favor of a smaller efficient one,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “Obama’s re-election had more to do with Americans believing that he cares about how to solve their problems.”

For example, surveys on Election Day showed that voters gave the president high marks for his initial response to the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast the week before the election.

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