(CNN) — Democrats are collecting spoils beyond what many predicted, Republicans are licking wounds after a bruising battle, and the country is waking up to the mix of euphoric celebration and bitter disappointment that accompanies the long-awaited end of the election.
But in the lightning speed world of today’s politics, the hours since President Barack Obama’s re-election victory have allowed the conversation to shift — from what happened to what’s next.
“Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual,” Obama said in his rousing victory speech after winning all or virtually all of the key swing states — only Florida remains unknown — in a sweeping electoral victory and decisive popular win.
“You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with 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. We’ve got more work to do.”
Mitt Romney, absorbing defeat after a historically expensive race on both sides, issued a similar call in his concession speech. “The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
These are the calls and promises Americans are accustomed to, with far too little action materializing after the grand promises. Skepticism has become the legitimate knee-jerk reaction for many. But in this case, the country could be in for a pleasant surprise.
Former President Bill Clinton predicted weeks ago that an Obama victory would be the key to ending the gridlock in Washington.
Every administration needs “an action-forcing event,” he told CNN.
“I believe the election will be that event. I expect the president to win. And I think if he does, after this happens, then you will see the logjam begin to break.”
Republican strategist Ana Navarro, a CNN contributor, echoed that message on CNN Wednesday morning. “President Obama’s re-election does two things. It frees President Obama to be able to work with the Republican Congress, and it frees the Republican Congress to be able to work with President Obama.”
Tuesday’s election left Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate.
But the political winds have shifted. With no Obama re-election battle looming, there isn’t the same incentive for each side to demonize the other.
Whether there is a newfound ability to cooperate will be put to the test just about immediately. The so-called “fiscal cliff” requires a solution by the end of the year. If left in place, the cliff — a combination of tax hikes and mandated across-the-board spending cuts — would lead to the biggest single-year drop in the annual deficit as a percent of the economy since 1969.
And a critical voice in that debate will be Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate and chairman of the House Budget Committee.
He and Obama slammed each other’s economic policies repeatedly throughout the campaign. Each has staunch supporters. Now comes the search for middle ground.
House Speaker John Boehner vowed last night that his side will be part of the effort to find one. But he also signaled a hard line.
“The American people re-elected the president, and re-elected our majority in the House,” said Boehner, R-Ohio. “If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs, which is critical to solving our debt.”
The loss is stinging to Republicans, who have taken on Obama throughout his time in office. Rhetoric from both sides has often reached a fever pitch.
And for the right wing, Tuesday’s election brought more bad news. For the first time ever, voters approved same-sex marriage, with referendums in Maine and Maryland. Voters in Minnesota rejected a ban. A vote to allow same-sex marriage in Washington was too close to call Wednesday morning.
Washington and Colorado, meanwhile, voted to approve state initiatives legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Oregon voters rejected a similar initiative, however. And in Alabama and Wyoming, voters approved efforts to limit “Obamacare.” In Montana, initial returns show approval for banning medical marijuana and limiting “Obamacare.”
With Romney saying he’d leave public service after the election, and Obama now likely to never face a public campaign again, both parties are thinking ahead to who may become the new leaders to carry the respective mantles.
But the shared hope expressed by both men to their crowds of supporters in the early hours of Wednesday morning is a reminder of what many Americans across the political spectrum want: a government that gets things done.
It was palpable in Chicago’s McCormick Place, where the screaming cheers of thousands echoed in the ears of young Malia and Sasha Obama as they joined their parents on stage, and in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, where subdued Romney supporters soon dispersed.
It was the hope shared by millions around the country as they at last turned in for the night, getting a few hours’ sleep before heading off to work or seeking employment, hoping that brighter days lie ahead.
Obama “got off to a semi-rocky start, but I think that with another four years, we have a good chance,” Obama supporter Brian Anderson said overnight. “I want to see Obama get spending under control,” said Romney voter Elizabeth Lauten.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter summed it up succinctly.
“The election is over. It’s time for governing and making things happen,” he told CNN Wednesday morning.
That means bringing President Obama’s signature campaign word — “forward” — to fruition. “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny,” he said, “the task of perfecting our union moves forward.”