For Obama, Survival Is the New Winning

The President figured out how to leverage a thumping victory from relative weakness.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Obama attends a campaign rally in Richmond, Va.

That kind of — brace yourselves for a Washington dirty word — compromise could take both parties months to embrace, and they may not get there in the two years or so before second-term Obama starts into the falling glide path of a lame duck. It is far from clear that men like Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have the vision, temperament or muscle memory to get behind a commonsense deal. For that matter, they may not have the power inside a party purged of moderates. Democrats, meanwhile, are largely shorn of their own moderate fringe, and they did not give Obama an unchallenged cakewalk to renomination in order to have him make cuts in the entitlement programs that are the party’s defining legacy.

Will Obama’s re-election “clear away a lot of the ideological underbrush” in Washington, as the President predicted in the days before the election? The question may start generating answers quickly. The government is racing toward the so-called fiscal cliff, when an assortment of tax and spending issues deferred by both parties until after the campaign will demand action all at once. That’s the first place to look for signs of a new dawn in Washington.

Obama goes into those talks with a stronger hand to play than his Election Day numbers might suggest. His principal campaign promise, a return to Clinton-era tax rates on top earners, is poised to drop effortlessly into his lap on Jan. 1, when the current lower rates expire. If the GOP decides to negotiate on taxes — a big if — that might be the moment. Other automatic triggers are set to enact unprecedented cuts in Pentagon spending, which will be more popular among Democrats than Republicans. In other words, a plunge from the cliff — which many economists say is a recipe for a new recession — will cause enough pain to Republicans that the GOP may decide to deal after four years of disciplined resistance.

But it’s more likely that both sides will find a way to kick the can (or most of it) down the road again. After all, little in the election results suggests that the public voted for a different approach. Who knows? The parties may find it easier to make a grand deal on taxes and spending after taking a tumble from the cliff. Much of the pain would already have been incurred at that point, and reforms could be sold as salve, not castor oil.

An Infinity of Deficits
There were trends, perhaps, in the down-ballot initiatives. Voters endorsed same-sex-marriage rights in three states: Maryland, Maine and Washington. Marijuana was legalized in Colorado.

But a deliberately small and vague campaign came to an end without clarifying America’s largest and most vivid challenges.

Unemployment remains high, particularly among the minorities and young people who were decisive for Obama on Election Day. Educational attainment, compared with other nations, is lagging at a time when global competition demands a sharper workforce. In fact, the percentage of Americans participating in the labor force is shrinking while enrollment in disability and retirement programs is growing. In other words, a larger safety net is being held up by a smaller number of workers. At the state level, that plays out in the form of a more than $1 trillion shortfall in promised pensions, which is forcing cities from coast to coast into default. At the federal level, the imbalance between workers and pensioners is revealed in an infinity of budget deficits for which neither party has a solution.

An improving economy would certainly help with these problems. After more than four years of the worst numbers since the Great Depression, there have been a few hopeful glimmers: steady (though weak) job creation, slow (but measurable) growth. The housing market is a bit stronger. The percentage of Americans who say the nation’s on the wrong track is lower than it has been in years. How long this tepid recovery will last, though, is guesswork. Economists say a follow-on recession is a possibility as long as Europe staggers on the edge of fiscal unraveling and China’s once explosive double-digit annual growth cools to mid–single digits. Overseas, the Middle East seethes on. The U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan like a fist from a bucket of water — hardly leaving a trace. Next door, Iran draws closer to a nuke. Next door, Syria is burning. The leading powers of Asia — China and Japan — are at loggerheads over control of resources and bragging rights in the South China Sea.

The question always comes up after a presidential campaign, but especially in tough times: Who would want this job? And so it is worth remembering, always, that credit goes to the men and women who are willing to put themselves on the line, because it is often unpleasant and never easy but always vitally important. Barack Hussein Obama and Willard “Mitt” Romney stepped up to the fight this year; they campaigned doggedly (if not always well) and opened themselves to withering attacks not only on their political positions but also on their morals and good faith. This is the system we have, and it has proved durable and strong. But that doesn’t make it pretty. In the end, each gave as good as he got, and Obama squeaked through. Ordeal? Yes. Uplift? Alas, no.

— with reporting by Michael Scherer / Chicago, Alex Altman / Boston and Michael Crowley, Massimo Calabresi, Jay Newton-Small, Katy Steinmetz, Alex Rogers and Elizabeth Dias / Washington

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