The outcome was surprisingly swift. The TV networks called the race against Republican Mitt Romney less than 20 minutes after the polls closed on the West Coast, as a succession of battleground states tipped the president's way.
Claiming victory before a roaring, flag-waving crowd in his hometown of Chicago, Obama summoned a bit of the poetry absent throughout much of the acrid campaign. He told supporters that the country was moving forward “because of you.”
“You reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope,” he said, “the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an America family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and one people.”
He vowed to reach out to congressional leaders of both parties “to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil,” he said.
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founding,” he went on, “the idea that if you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like.… It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you're willing to try.”
Romney, standing alone on a flag-bedecked stage in Boston, spoke before Obama took the stage.
“This is a time of great challenge for America,” he told disconsolate supporters, his voice worn and expression taut, “and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.”
For all the agitation and unhappiness with Washington, a constant this election season, the federal government will look next year much as it does today. Republicans held onto the House majority they captured in 2010 and Democrats beat back long odds to keep control of the Senate.
For Obama, 51, winning a second term proved far more difficult than his barrier-breaking romp four years ago to become the nation's first black president. His reelection drive bore only a faint resemblance to the uplift and aspiration of 2008. He did, however, manage to replicate his overwhelming support among blacks and Latinos — the fastest-growing part of the electorate — and again won among women.
New campaign laws produced a flood of more than $2.5 billion in spending, much of it from independent groups. There were more than 1 million TV ads, many scathingly negative. Even so, the political map ended up looking much as it did in 2008. The only states that flipped to Romney, pending final results, were North Carolina and Indiana, both icing on Obama's first victory.
Though Florida, one of the hardest-fought states, was too close to call, a victory there would only pad Obama's electoral vote total well past the 270 needed to claim the White House. Of the handful of states in which the fiercest combat took place, Romney claimed only North Carolina, while Obama carried Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado.
The president did make history of a fashion Tuesday, becoming the first incumbent since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win a second term with unemployment above 7.4%. At 7.9%, the jobless rate stands a tick up from when Obama took office amid the worst economic downturn since the Depression.
Not surprisingly, exit polls showed the touch-and-go economy was voter's overriding concern, cited by 6 in 10 of those surveyed. Fewer than half, 4 in 10, believed the economy was getting better. But Obama was insulated to a great extent: Just about half laid the blame for the struggling economy on his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
There were big stakes in the election: the fate of tax cuts scheduled to lapse at year's end, the likelihood of one or more Supreme Court appointments and, more fundamentally, two visions for the proper role of government, embodied by competing plans for healthcare and the future of Medicare and Medicaid.
Obama vowed to let the tax cuts expire. Romney promised to repeal Obama's signature healthcare law as his first order of business.
But a smallness suffused much of the campaign.
The president's strategists filleted the electorate to pursue narrow slices with special appeals: immigration reform to spur Latino turnout, cheaper student loans to entice young voters, legal abortion and access to contraception to persuade women to support the president's reelection.
Romney hewed to a similar strategy, spending months reaching out to the GOP's conservative base to heal wounds of a bitter primary season, before finally pivoting to appeal to the middle of the electorate in the last weeks of the contest.
There was none of the historical resonance of 2008, when Obama battled a former first lady to win the Democratic nomination. Even Obama supporters said the campaign was less a crusade than a rear-guard fight to preserve the accomplishments of the last four years.
The president pushed through a massive spending package early in his term that helped stave off a second Depression, according to many independent analysts. Republicans disagreed, saying Obama deepened the crisis and delayed recovery, a dispute that played out at the heart of the presidential race.
Both sides had evidence to cite. Obama pointed to millions of private-sector jobs created, for a net gain under his administration. Romney noted the country's stubbornly high unemployment rate. That was not, Romney said endlessly, the change that people voted for in 2008.
Obama pursued an activist agenda in his first two years, passing an ambitious healthcare plan that had been a Democratic goal for decades. There was, however, a steep political price. Resistance gave rise to the tea party movement, and Republicans gained 63 seats to seize control of the House in the midterm election.
Facing a tough reelection fight, Obama enjoyed one singular advantage: avoiding a primary challenge, which could have divided the Democratic Party and forced him to spend tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars and stake out far-left positions that could have haunted him later.
Romney illustrated that danger. After losing the GOP nomination in 2008, he started the primary season as the front-runner. But he struggled against a weak field and might have lost but for the intervention of free-spending supporters who bombarded his rivals with a deluge of negative ads.
Even so, the fight exacted a heavy toll on Romney. His hard-line stance on immigration appealed to conservative primary voters, and his staunch opposition to abortion and promise to slash federal funding for Planned Parenthood was effective in fending off rivals. But both positions hurt him in the fall campaign with Latino and women voters, respectively.
While Romney worked to consolidate GOP support, the Obama campaign and its allies set out to define their rival through a blitz of attack ads that portrayed him as a heartless corporate profiteer. It was a charge first leveled in the Republican primaries, and it proved especially resonant in Ohio and among victims of the Rust Belt's decline.
Romney's opposition to the Obama-backed bailout of the auto industry, which faced collapse amid the near-economic meltdown, was especially hurtful.
After a middling GOP convention — perhaps best remembered for an odd turn by actor Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair intended to represent Obama — many Republicans privately despaired that the race was slipping from Romney's grasp.
The economy seemed to be steadily picking up. Worse for Romney, a secretly recorded videotape surfaced from Mother Jones magazine showing him disparaging the 47% of Americans who paid no federal income tax last year.
Just as the gloom thickened, Romney turned in a commanding Oct. 3 debate performance against a surprisingly listless Obama. Overnight, Republican enthusiasm soared, and the race was suddenly back on.
Obama rebounded with far stronger performances in the next two debates, and the campaign settled into a sort of stalemate — Romney with a marginal lead in national polls, Obama with an advantage in the state-by-state electoral college. Then nature delivered a final surprise in the form of Superstorm Sandy. The president flew to the Jersey Shore to appear alongside the state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, an erstwhile foe.
But the dynamic of the campaign was set early in Obama's term, by the state of the economy, the aggressive government response and Republican assertions that the private sector, if left alone, could have hastened the recovery.
Obama and Romney perfectly reflected those philosophies, leaving voters — all other issues aside — a clear choice.