Both sides called it a generation-defining race for the White House: a choice between Democrat Barack Obama's brand of government activism and Republican Mitt Romney's commitment to reducing Washington's role in Americans' daily lives. Obama's victory, however, did not settle that question. Instead, the hard-fought battle for the White House exposed an electorate deeply divided by race, age and party.
Tuesday's elections - in which Republicans kept control of the US House and Obama's Democrats held on to the Senate - suggested that bitter partisanship would likely remain very much alive in Washington in the new year.
They also revealed that there was no broad mandate for much beyond the broadly shared goals of improving the economy and reducing government debt. That means that undertaking bold new initiatives comparable to healthcare reform, financial regulation and economic stimulus programs will be a great deal more complicated for Obama 2012 than they were for Obama 2008.
Even so, Obama - now unfettered by not having to face voters again - is in position to pursue an ambitious agenda that could leave his mark on government for a generation or longer, including a move to revamp the nation's immigration laws.
Some analysts believe Obama is likely to spend much of his second term "locking down the achievements of his first term," including ensuring that "we will have a functioning national healthcare system," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
For some, that would be enough to secure his place in history. "Just by re-electing Obama, that means the Affordable Care Act will continue to be implemented, and that's very important because that's one of the most important pieces of legislation in half a century," Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard University, said of the law that helps extend health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
"Most of the action will occur between the president's administration and states, and my guess is a lot of the Republican governors will find ways to accept parts of the Medicare expansion," Skocpol said.
A boost from the bailout?
In at least one respect, Tuesday's election results vindicated Obama's belief in an activist government. By supporting an $85 billion federal bailout of the auto industry in 2009, a measure that was not particularly popular at the time, Obama may have helped to save not just the industry, but his presidency.
The auto bailout - and the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney over his opposition to it - appeared to be key factors in the president's victory in the crucial battleground state of Ohio, where 1 in 8 jobs is connected to the auto industry.
Nationwide, Obama - the nation's first black president - trailed Romney among working-class white male voters by 17 percentage points, according to Reuters/Ipsos Election Day polling. But in Ohio, white men with incomes of $75,000 or less were split 49-49 between Obama and Romney in Reuters/Ipsos polling. Analysts said the disparity indicated that the auto bailout - which saved nearly 1.5 million jobs nationwide, according to the Center for Automotive Research - likely gave Obama a critical boost in just the right place.
"While Romney enjoys a large advantage among lower-income white males nationally, the trend reverses in Ohio," Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said. "This underlines the importance of the auto bailout in Ohio, and perceptions of Romney as unsympathetic to the challenges faced by the working class in this state."
Political analysts and strategists expect Obama's second-term agenda to be layered with increased federal spending for education, job and energy programs. But such an agenda will be complicated by the government's $16 trillion debt and the looming "fiscal cliff" - a $600 billion tax increase scheduled to take effect along with mandatory spending cuts at the start of the new year unless Obama and Congress can agree on a deficit reduction deal.
Obama's commitment to immigration reform - a key goal for Democrats who want to solidify their hold on the growing Latino vote - would seem to have an increasingly clear path to success, especially as Republicans seek ways to improve their appeal to that minority group.
But the biggest, most immediate challenge is the looming showdown with Republicans in Congress over spending and taxes, during which Obama will press to keep his campaign promise to raise taxes on the wealthy while retaining lower tax rates for others.
Obama has signaled he may try to force Republicans to accept his demand to increase taxes on those making $250,000 or more a year by threatening to veto any legislation aimed at preventing the tax increases and massive spending cuts that are slated kick in automatically at the end of the year.
The notion that one of Obama's boldest second-term moves could be reinstating Clinton-era tax rates on the wealthy suggests that the president's agenda could be significant but limited, some analysts say. "It's not like you're going to have a new, New Deal," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, referring to the broad array of social programs enacted by President Franklin D Roosevelt to help the nation recover from the Great Depression of the 1930s.
During the presidential campaign, "the rhetoric is so dramatic, you think you're deciding between FDR and a (staunchly conservative) candidate from the 19th century," Zelizer said. "I'm sure most Republicans see Obama as a big-government liberal and most Democrats see Romney as a right-wing, Tea Party zealot." In fact, Zelizer said, both Obama and Romney were "relatively in the middle of the political spectrum, with limits on what they (could) achieve in a gridlocked Washington."
Challenge for Republicans
It may be too soon to tell whether the 2012 election will be a turning point in how Americans view the role of government in society.
But the election does appear to mark another type of political transition. Romney, 65, could be the last Republican of his generation to make a serious bid for the White House. The Republicans who appear to be in position to run for president in 2016 represent a new generation of leaders who generally are more conservative than their predecessors.
They include Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan (42), Florida Senator Marco Rubio (41), Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (41), former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (54), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (50) and House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia (49).
For them and any other Republicans who might consider a run for the White House, Tuesday's election results brought a sign of potential trouble ahead. Obama won about 66% of the vote among Hispanics, who make up about 17% of the US population and are projected by the Pew Research Center to account for nearly 30% by 2050. The Republican Party's harsh stance on immigration has hurt its ability to attract Latinos, according to analysts who say the new generation of Republican contenders will need to tone down the party's harsh rhetoric on immigration or risk certain defeat in several states because of Hispanics siding with Democrats.
"We certainly seem to be at the end of something, and at the beginning of another, when it comes to Republican candidates," SMU's Jillson said. "The Republican Party is untenable in its current form and in serious trouble as a viable governing vehicle (because) the Democratic Party is more attractive to growing constituencies - anyone who feels vulnerable and as if they may need support."
During the campaign, Obama signed an executive order granting temporary legal status and work permits to young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. He also has said he would push Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would make the order permanent and create a path to citizenship for many undocumented workers.
Romney said he opposed the DREAM Act and that he favored harsh immigration policies that would lead illegal immigrants to "self-deport." He later seemed to back away from that stance, and said he would seek some form of immigration reform that tied US citizenship to education and jobs.
If Republicans do not improve their image among Latinos, Jillson said, some solidly conservative states might not be that way much longer. "The Republican Party absolutely will have to soften its message," Jillson said. "Texas (now dominated by Republicans) is 15 years away from a two-party system" because of its growing Hispanic population.
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti)