One day after his surprisingly comfortable re-election, a triumphant President Barack Obama headed back to the White House and divided government on Wednesday with little time left for a compromise with Republicans to avert spending cuts and tax increases that threaten a new recession.
The president also is looking ahead to top-level personnel changes in a second term, involving three powerful Cabinet portfolios at a minimum.
Republicans headed into a season of potentially painful reflection after retaining control of the House but losing the presidency and falling deeper into the Senate minority. One major topic: the changing face of America.
"We've got to deal with the issue of immigration through good policy. What is the right policy if we want economic growth in America as it relates to immigration?" said former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour. Obama drew support from about 70 percent of all Hispanics, far outpacing Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
There was little time to celebrate for the winners, with a post-election session of Congress scheduled to convene next Tuesday. By common agreement, the main order of business is the search for a compromise to keep the economy from falling off a so-called "fiscal cliff."
The White House said Obama had made post-election phone calls to congressional leaders and reiterated a commitment to bipartisan steps to "reduce our deficit in a balanced way, cut taxes for middle class families and small businesses and create jobs."
"The president said he believed that the American people sent a message in yesterday's election that leaders in both parties need to put aside their partisan interests and work with common purpose to put the interests of the American people and the American economy first," the statement said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters that any solution should include higher taxes on "the richest of the rich." That was in keeping with Obama's election platform, which calls for the expiration of tax cuts on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Reid said he spoke with Republican House Speaker John Boehner as well as Obama Tuesday night as the election results became known, and he declared that "of course" a compromise was possible on the overall issue.
"I'm not going to draw a line in the sand. He's not going to draw a line in the sand, I don't believe," Reid said of Boehner.
The speaker set a conference call with his Republican rank and file for mid-afternoon.
He said in pre-election interviews he would not agree to raise taxes on small business owners, a formulation Republicans often use in opposing the president's position on the issue.
Barring legislation by year's end, taxes are on course to rise by more than $500 billion in 2013, and spending is to be cut by an additional $130 billion or so, totals that would increase over a decade. The blend is designed to rein in the federal debt, but officials in both parties warn it poses a grave threat to an economic recovery that has been halting at best.
Obama and congressional leaders in both parties say they want an alternative, but serious compromise talks were non-existent during the fierce campaign season.
That ended Tuesday in an election in which more than 119 million votes were cast, mostly without controversy despite dire predictions of politically charged recounts and lawsuits while the presidency hung in the balance.
Obama won the popular vote narrowly, the electoral vote comfortably, and the battleground states where the campaign was principally waged in a landslide.
The president carried seven of the nine states where he, Romney and their allies spent nearly $1 billion on television commercials, winning Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia.
The Republican challenger won North Carolina, and Florida remained too close to call
Obama also turned back late moves by Republicans in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota.
Hispanics account for a larger share of the population than the national average in Nevada and Colorado, two of the closely contested battleground states. The president's outsized majority among Hispanics - in the range of 70 percent according to Election Day interviews with voters - helped him against a challenger who called earlier in the year for self-deportation of illegal immigrants.Other factors in crucial states:
- In Ohio, roughly 60 percent of all voters said they favored the Obama administration's auto bailout, and the president captured nearly three quarters of their votes, according to the survey, conducted for The Associated Press and a group of television networks. He stressed the rescue operation throughout the campaign. Romney opposed it, and in late campaign commercials suggested it had contributed to the loss of U.S. jobs overseas.
- In Virginia, the black vote was roughly half again as big in percentage terms as nationally, also an aid to Obama.
Changes are in store for the victorious administration. The election past, three members of Obama's Cabinet have announced plans to leave their posts: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Other changes would not be unusual in the second administration of any president.
As for Congress, Democrats improbably gained seats in re-establishing their Senate majority.
Their final margin hinged on a decision by independent Sen.-elect Angus King of Vermont, who has not yet said which party he will affiliate with.
The election was the second in a row in which Republicans lost potentially winnable races after nominating candidates who articulated views that voters evidently judged as too extreme.
Two years ago, tea party-backed insurgents were defeated in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware. This year, senior Republicans watched in disbelief as Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana flamed out after making incendiary comments about rape.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said his party has "a period of reflection and recalibration ahead." In a statement issued before the extent of GOP losses was known, he added, "While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight."
There were 13 House races that remained too close to call, leaving the final size of the Republicans' majority in doubt. They won at least 232 seats and led for two more, a trend that would translate to a net loss of 8 from the current lineup.
In defeat, Democrats pointed to races where they turned tea party-backed conservatives out of power as evidence they had stemmed a tide.