Tuesday — “America’s choosing day,” in Walt Whitman’s characterization of the election of 1884 — the nation whispered that it wanted to continue on the Obama path, but shouted that it wanted to do so with a different pace, in a different tone, with a different result.
Now Obama is no longer the man of hope and change, but a scarred and realistic president whose people gave him a second term and a second chance in the hope he might change.
Now Obama — no longer the charmed prophet floating above the political landscape — has a new beginning. But he will have difficulty claiming a mandate, and the animating question of American politics now is what he will do with his new beginning and what he must do to govern with anything approaching effectiveness.
The heavy turnout, perhaps a result of one of the many unintended consequences of the Citizens United decision, is almost certainly an indication of the urgency and intensity Americans feel about the problems that Obama didn’t tackle or solve in his first chance: slow economic growth. Stubbornly high unemployment. Terrifying consequences of the imminent fiscal cliff, of the unaddressed entitlement crisis and of the smoldering danger that is apparent in every household but reported in almost no news outlet — insufficient pensions and savings to carry hardworking, middle-class Americans into retirement.
If people were waiting 45 minutes to vote in Richland Township in southwestern Pennsylvania, and as much as twice as long in parts of Virginia, it very likely is because they have waited for years for politicians to address these problems.
Obama’s victory was muted compared with his 2008 triumph.
His supporters will say that this is the natural consequence of both expectations that were deeply unrealistic and of an economic crisis that was alarmingly persistent. But Obama was elected the first time on the jet stream of optimism, and even his strongest admirers concede privately that Obama soared as a candidate but stalled as a president.