"We're right back where we started," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.
This state of stasis is about to be put to a dramatic test as the nation confronts the "fiscal cliff." On Dec. 31, billions in automatic, phased-in cuts to federal spending and increases in taxes will start to take effect, unless Obama and Congress can agree on a deficit-reduction plan.
Is compromise possible? Prospects are hazy. Analysts say it will take determined efforts by Obama and congressional leaders to avoid immediate disaster - and to figure out how to govern a divided nation in the next four years.
On Friday, the table seemed to be set for a confrontation, with a sense of déjà vu.
In the East Room of the White House, Obama said he would not accept any plan for deficit reduction that did not ask wealthy Americans to pay more. He said he had a pen ready to sign an immediate extension of the Bush-era tax rates for households earning less than $250,000 a year.
"This was a central question during the election," Obama said. "The majority of Americans agree with my approach."
Exit polls conducted during Tuesday's balloting found that 47 percent of voters said they favored letting taxes rise for couples with incomes of $250,000 annually or more, while 13 percent said they should go up for everyone.
Yet, even more voters - 63 percent - said they did not think taxes should be raised at all to help reduce the deficit, a contradiction that Obama did not mention.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio), in separate remarks Friday, citied an Ernst & Young study that estimated raising taxes on the highest earners could cost as many as 700,000 jobs. All the Bush-era rates must be extended, he said.
"Raising tax rates will slow down our ability to create the jobs that everyone says they want," Boehner said. At other times, the speaker has said he would be open to increasing tax "revenue" - which could mean eliminating or limiting deductions and credits, while keeping rates the same. Obama said he, too, was "open to compromise" Friday, though his tone was of a leader drawing a line in the sand.
"That probably will go over as well as 'Let's reform Social Security' did for President George W. Bush," said political scientist Lara M. Brown of Villanova University. After his narrow 2004 reelection, Bush claimed a mandate to change the old-age pension system to allow younger workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. But he had not built up public support for the idea, people hated it, and it died.
The lesson for Obama: He will have to work to create some consensus for his position in a nation still deeply divided, Brown said. "At a basic level," she said, "we are a country that is at parity."
David King, a scholar who runs the orientation program for newly elected members of Congress at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, agreed.
"It's time for President Obama to play golf with members of both parties, to have them over on a regular basis - not to preach, not to teach, but to listen," King said. "Then there's some hope."
Obama's choice of campaign tactics did little to set the stage for bipartisan golf outings. He cobbled together an electoral coalition state by state, mostly by mobilizing the base that elected him in 2008. He stressed the auto-industry bailout in Ohio, for instance, where his campaign also increased the turnout of black voters. In Nevada and Colorado, he won with huge support from Latinos.
He successfully branded Mitt Romney as unacceptable to just enough voters, but the campaign ended with Americans as polarized as ever.
He got about 50 percent of the popular vote, and his victory appears even less sweeping in a closer look at county-by-county maps of election returns. Obama is only the second president to win a second term with a reduced percentage of the popular vote (the great 19th-century populist Andrew Jackson was the other). He's only the third, after James Madison and Woodrow Wilson, to get a second term after winning a smaller percentage of the electoral vote than he did the first time around.
"Mandates are not meaningful in the context of deep partisan polarization," said Mann, of Brookings. "No consensus between the parties is in sight after the election, and polarization has been exacerbated, not diminished. ... We see no new coalitions emerging, no glimpse of anything on which you'd try to build a consensus in Washington based on the behavior of the electorate."
Yet, Cozen O'Connor Public Strategies, the government-relations arm of the Philadelphia law firm, says conditions are actually ripe for a short-term deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, pushing it off until next year with a compromise on tax revenue and negotiated cuts to spending.
For one thing, Cozen's analysis says, there's a big incentive to avoid going over the cliff - the impact of which, experts warn, would reduce already-anemic economic growth as much as 5 percent. For another, the election season is over, leaving a small window of time in which to tackle hot subjects without a pressing campaign.
"The last thing anybody wants to do, given the fragile state of the economy, is push us back into recession," said Howard Schweitzer, managing partner of the public-strategies group. "There's not a lot of daylight between Republicans and Democrats on the goals of improving the economy and paying down the debt."
In 2013, Obama and Congress will be back at it, working on a longer-term deficit deal. So the need for genuine bargaining will only grow.
"It takes a real leader to sit and listen," said the Kennedy School's King. "And I think that's what we need right now."
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald
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