Obama pledges to ease bitter divide

A triumphant US President Barack Obama pledged to ease the bitter partisan divide on display during his gruelling battle for re-election and sure to carry over into his second White House term, while the most pressing of many urgent economic problems looms with a “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year.

Mr Obama captured far more than the 270 electoral votes needed for victory over Republican Mitt Romney and further cemented his place in history, despite having his first term dominated by stubbornly high unemployment and widespread anxiety about the country’s future.

Mr Obama’s re-election should guarantee the future of his signature legislative achievement, a health care overhaul, which Republicans hoped to overturn.

It also means the United States is likely to continue a foreign policy emphasising multinational partnerships in dealing with issues such as Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear programme – an approach Mr Romney derided as weak.

Mr Obama’s victory could also come as a relief to China, since Mr Romney had pledged to declare it a currency manipulator, potentially leading to sanctions and escalating trade tensions.

Thousands of Obama supporters in his hometown of Chicago hugged each other, danced and pumped their fists when TV networks declared him the winner. Excited crowds gathered in New York’s Times Square and near the White House in Washington, drivers joyfully honking as they passed by.

But the celebration was not the overwhelming one of four years ago, when voters knew they were making history by electing America’s first black president.

Mr Obama made it clear he would pursue the goals that eluded him during his first term amid fierce Republican opposition: changes in the tax code, immigration and tackling climate change.

For the United States, “the best is yet to come,” Mr Obama said, as signs suggest that the next four years will coincide with a vastly healthier economy. Yet he hinted at fights to come, saying big decisions “inevitably stir up passions”.

“That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t,” he added. “These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”

It was a far cry from the Obama of four years ago, the son of a white American mother and a Kenyan father whose improbable election captivated the world with his message of hope and pledges of bipartisanship that would change the way things are done in Washington.

Those lofty ambitions quickly sank into the quagmire of a punishing economic recession and crashed into a Republican Party that, determined to deny Mr Obama a second term, fought him at every turn.

Now the Republicans have to regroup and face the country’s changing demographics instead of clinging to the aging, conservative white male voters the party had hoped would bring Mr Romney a win.

Younger voters and minorities came to the polls at levels not far off the historic coalition Mr Obama assembled in 2008. And Hispanics made up 10% of the electorate, up from 9% four years ago.

But Mr Obama’s narrow lead in the popular vote will make it difficult for him to claim a sweeping mandate. With returns from 94% of the nation’s precincts, Mr Obama had 58 million, or 50% of the popular vote. Mr Romney had 56 million, or 48%.

The election did nothing to end America’s divided government. The Democrats retained their narrow majority in the Senate, while the Republicans kept firm control of the House of Representatives.

That means Mr Obama’s agenda will largely be in the hands of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the president’s partner in unsuccessful deficit talks.

Mr Romney tried to set a more conciliatory tone on his way off the national stage.

“At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering,” Mr Romney said after a campaign filled with it. “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that his party would not easily abandon its goals of lower taxes and deep spending cuts.

“The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” said Mr McConnell, frosty in his postelection remarks. “Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.”

Those clashing views will soon face a pressing test.

Mr Obama and Congress need to negotiate a new fiscal plan that avoids massive cuts in defence and other domestic spending and sharp across-the-board tax increases, totalling about 1.2 trillion dollars.

The world’s largest economy risks sinking into another recession if Congress cannot reach a budget deal by January.

The election emerged as a choice between two very different visions of government: Mr Obama sees it as a major, front-row player in Americans’ lives. Mr Romney sees it as a smaller, less obtrusive facilitator for private enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Mr Obama in his first term pushed through an auto bailout, an economic stimulus plan and financial reform legislation aimed at curbing Wall Street’s excesses. Going forward, he insists there is no way to both reduce the national debt – now a staggering 16 trillion dollars – and safeguard crucial social programmes without asking the wealthy to pay their “fair share” in taxes.

Mr Romney, a multimillionaire who said his business success gave him the experience to fix the economy, favoured lowering taxes and easing regulations on businesses, saying it would spur job growth.

Mr Obama had a sizeable victory where it mattered: in the competition for electoral votes. He had at least 303 votes to Romney’s 206. The president is chosen in a state-by-state tally of electors, not according to the nationwide popular vote, making such “battleground” states – which vote neither Republican nor Democrat on a consistent basis – particularly important.

Mr Obama won Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Nevada, seven of the nine battleground states where the rivals and their allies poured nearly 1 billion dollars into duelling television commercials. Mr Romney captured only North Carolina. The final swing state – Florida – remained too close to call on Wednesday.

The economy was rated the top issue by about 60% of voters surveyed as they left polling places. But more said former President George W Bush bore responsibility for current circumstances than Mr Obama did after nearly four years in office. Mr Obama became the first president since Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s to win re-election with a jobless rate as high as it is now - 7.9%.

The race was the most expensive ever, with costs soaring above 2 billion dollars.

Mr Romney, who would have been America’s first Mormon president, won the Republican nomination after a gruelling primary that forced him to shift positions far to the right of those he held as governor of Massachusetts, a liberal state.

That made it difficult for him to pivot back toward the centre to claim independent voters who tend to decide US elections. He was not a comfortable campaigner, often seen as wooden and awkward and prone to gaffes.

According to the exit poll, 53% of voters said Mr Obama was more in touch with people like them, compared to 43% for Mr Romney.

But Mr Romney’s candidacy surged after a sharp, confident performance in the first debate in early October, while Mr Obama appeared tired and listless. Still, Mr Obama recovered after stronger performances in the next two debates, new signs of economic recovery and a widely praised response to Superstorm Sandy in the final full week of the campaign.

Elsewhere on the ballot, voters in Maine and Maryland became the first to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote while Washington state and Colorado legalised recreational use of marijuana.

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