CHICAGO, IL — President Obama’s historic presidency will continue into a second term.
Projections show Obama defeating Mitt Romney in enough states to earn a majority in the electoral college, though slightly less of one than Obama won in 2008. Despite late hopes from Romney that momentum might carry him to an upset victory, the president resoundingly defeated Romney in nearly every battleground. The huge crowd at his rally in Chicago grew louder, reaching delirious heights, as NBC’s call of the linchpin battleground state of Ohio put Obama over the top.
On the eve of the election, a teary-eyed and hoarse Obama in Iowa asked the early supporters that turned his grassroots 2008 campaign into a phenomenon to come to his aid one last time.
“It’s out of my hands now,” he said. “It’s up to you.”
They listened. The early exit polls showed the same rising demographic coalition that elected Obama in a landslide in 2008 remained strong. Black, Latino, and youth turnout was strong nationally and in critical states. The Republican Party now faces the dangerous prospect of competing against a better-organized party whose base voters are rapidly growing and politically active while their own key supporters dwindle.
But if Obama’s first campaign had the feel of a triumphant ascendancy to the White House, his second better resembled an emergency landing. The president spent much of the campaign’s final weeks fighting off a late run from Romney, who appeared to be on track to defeat before a strong debate on Oct. 3 sent his poll numbers rocketing upwards.
The final weeks of the campaign were a brutal grind as both candidates crisscrossed the country at a breakneck pace, stumping for votes in just a handful of swing states. Obama presented himself as a trustworthy “champion” of regular Americans, Romney as an agent of “real change” on the economy. But despite Romney’s initial momentum, it became clear over the last two weeks that Obama held a small, but resilient polling lead in the critical battleground of Ohio while remaining competitive in other important states.
For Obama, the election marked the end of a remarkable journey over the past six years, from longshot Democratic primary candidate to surprise nominee to landslide presidential winner to embattled incumbent and now to two-term president.
The president was widely expected by partisans on both sides to be a two-term president after taking office in a landslide victory. He got off to a historically productive start, pushing through a stimulus bill, auto bailout, and bank rescue plan that helped put a floor on the economic free fall he inherited. Moving on to his 2008 campaign agenda, he signed a universal health care law, a goal that had eluded generations of Democratic presidents, passed the first major reforms on Wall Street in decades, and ended discrimination against gays in the military, among other accomplishments. Meanwhile, he presided over the exit of US forces from Iraq and a temporary escalation in Afghanistan ahead of an announced withdrawal there as well.
Despite his policy successes, a combination of a resurgent Republican base and stagnant economy soon threatened his presidency, powering the GOP back into power in the House and eroding the Democratic majority in the Senate. As gridlock overtook Washington and the recovery moved forward in fits and starts, Obama’s approval ratings dropped into the 40s and his opponents grew more confident in their ability to retake the White House. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden, a crowning military achievement that eluded both presidents Clinton and Bush, produced only a momentary increase in his stature nationally.
Romney had a bumpy flight through campaign season too. Though the closing weeks of his campaign were a story of triumph over pundits who wrote him off after the Republican convention, the months preceding his sharp rise in the polls were a series of embarrassing primary setbacks and a lack of ability to fend off attacks from Democrats and the Obama campaign. Romney entered the Republican race with most observers expecting quick knockabout blow against a group of comparative lightweights who lacked the infrastructure and establishment support Romney had built over six years of presidential campaigning. Instead, Romney was dragged into a brutal state-by-state fight with conservatives, who threw their weight behind anyone but him — from Rick Perry to Herman Cain — for months. Romney was dragged into fights over contraception and immigration that left him scarred heading into the general. His time at Bain Capital also became a liability months before Democrats ever got a clean shot at him.
After securing his party’s nomination in April, Romney struggled to bring his brand back to the middle. This was in part due to Team Obama, which spent millions to define him as an out-of-touch millionaire in the summer months. The primary race, which left conservatives skeptical of his candidacy and required Romney to spend valuable time trying to rally them, also helped pin him down. The process of wooing back his base didn’t fully end until Romney chose GOP idol Paul Ryan as his running mate.
But even with his party fully behind him, it wasn’t until the first presidential debate in Denver that Romney was able to finally run as a moderate Republican governor of a blue state. The polls tightened, but his resurgence peaked with the president narrowly ahead.
Obama, suddenly contemplating the very real possibility of defeat, regained his footing as well. He and Biden followed the president’s debacle in Denver with three strong debates, calming frayed Democratic nerves and putting the onus on Romney again to close the gap. Behind in more than enough states to award Obama a second term, the Republican nominee spent his final days trying to eke out new paths to victory through previously non-competitive states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. All were called early in the evening for Obama.
The president has earned another four years, but the Republican Congress that stymied him over the last two years remains and Obama has been relatively quiet about his plans. In the short term he must resolve the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of expiring tax hikes and scheduled spending cuts set to take effect at the start of the new year. One legislative fight that’s likely: immigration reform. After powering Obama to yet another victory, Obama owes Hispanic Americans in a major way. And given that at many Republicans are openly fretting that they may be lost for a generation without immediate action, there is at least faint hope for bipartisanship.
But beyond that, much of his time is likely to spent implementing the massive policy shifts he began in his first term, especially health care reform, a task that that does not require Congressional approval. The GOP’s last best chance at erasing his achievements gone, Obama’s re-election offers a a solid foundation for what could be a generation-defining presidency in the mold of Ronald Reagan.
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed from Boston.