(Reuters) – Both sides called it a generation-defining race for the White House: a choice between Democrat Barack Obama’s brand of government activism and Republican Mitt Romney’s commitment to reducing Washington’s role in Americans’ daily lives.
Obama’s victory, however, did not settle that question.
Instead, the hard-fought battle for the White House exposed an electorate deeply divided by race, age and party.
Tuesday’s elections – in which Republicans kept control of the U.S. House and Obama’s Democrats held on to the Senate – suggested that bitter partisanship would likely remain very much alive in Washington in the new year. They also revealed that there was no broad mandate for much beyond the broadly shared goals of improving the economy and reducing government debt.
That means that undertaking bold new initiatives comparable to healthcare reform, financial regulation and economic stimulus programs will be a great deal more complicated for Obama 2012 than they were for Obama 2008.
Even so, Obama – now unfettered by not having to face voters again – is in position to pursue an ambitious agenda that could leave his mark on government for a generation or longer, including a move to revamp the nation’s immigration laws.
Some analysts believe Obama is likely to spend much of his second term “locking down the achievements of his first term,” including ensuring that “we will have a functioning national healthcare system,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
For some, that would be enough to secure his place in history.
“Just by re-electing Obama, that means the Affordable Care Act will continue to be implemented, and that’s very important because that’s one of the most important pieces of legislation in half a century,” Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard University, said of the law that helps extend health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
“Most of the action will occur between the president’s administration and states, and my guess is a lot of the Republican governors will find ways to accept parts of the Medicare expansion,” Skocpol said.
CHALLENGE FOR REPUBLICANS
It may be too soon to tell whether the 2012 election will be a turning point in how Americans view the role of government in society. But the election does appear to mark another type of political transition.
Romney, 65, could be the last Republican of his generation to make a serious bid for the White House. The Republicans who appear to be in position to run for president in 2016 represent a new generation of leaders who generally are more conservative than their predecessors.
They include Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan (42), Florida Senator Marco Rubio (41), Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (41), former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (54), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (50) and House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia (49).
For them and any other Republicans who might consider a run for the White House, Tuesday’s election results brought a sign of potential trouble ahead.
Obama won about 66 percent of the vote among Hispanics, who make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population and are projected by the Pew Research Center to account for nearly 30 percent by 2050.
The Republican Party’s harsh stance on immigration has hurt its ability to attract Latinos, according to analysts who say the new generation of Republican contenders will need to tone down the party’s harsh rhetoric on immigration or risk certain defeat in several states because of Hispanics siding with Democrats.
“We certainly seem to be at the end of something, and at the beginning of another, when it comes to Republican candidates,” SMU’s Jillson said. “The Republican Party is untenable in its current form and in serious trouble as a viable governing vehicle (because) the Democratic Party is more attractive to growing constituencies – anyone who feels vulnerable and as if they may need support.”
During the campaign, Obama signed an executive order granting temporary legal status and work permits to young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. He also has said he would push Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would make the order permanent and create a path to citizenship for many undocumented workers.
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