CHICAGO: US President Barack Obama returns to Washington on Wednesday emboldened by his re-election but facing the daunting task of breaking down partisan gridlock in a bitterly divided Congress.
Before leaving Chicago in the afterglow of his euphoric win, Obama was already on the phone trying to bridge the divide with Republican leaders as America stares at a looming financial crisis that could spark a recession.
In his victory speech, Obama told Americans "the best is yet to come" after defying dark economic omens to handily defeat Mitt Romney, but his in-tray is overflowing with unfulfilled first term wishes thwarted by blanket Republican opposition.
Whether on immigration reform, health care or a grand plan to rein in the ballooning budget deficit, the president struggled for four years to find compromise in Congress and some questioned if he had the political chops.
The big question at the start of Obama's second term is this: will the Republicans blink on the looming "fiscal cliff" and strike a deal that will avert a catastrophic economic crunch forced by mandatory budget cuts?
"In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward," the president told the country in his rousing acceptance speech.
But Obama knows it is not his vanquished foe that he must now deal with but rather the Republican leadership in Congress, which may dig its heels in after failing in its stated goal: to make him a one-term president.
Obama, who returns to the White House later Wednesday, won despite the highest unemployment rate of any president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and became only the second Democrat since then to win a second term.
With only Florida among the battleground states still to be declared, Obama had 303 electoral votes -- well over the 270 needed to win the White House.
Despite his resounding Electoral College victory, diehard Republicans were already challenging his mandate, pointing to his slim lead in the national popular vote where he led Romney by 50 percent to 49 percent.
"I think the real story here is that Obama won, but he's got no mandate," leading conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer declared on Fox News.
"The Republicans are in control of the House, probably a little bit stronger. They are not going to budge. There's no way after holding out on Obama for two years they're going to cave in, and Obama doesn't have anywhere really to go."
Obama's first move the day after re-election was to call congressional leaders, sending out an overt message that his immediate priority was to try to break the domestic political deadlock.
The president spoke to Republican House Speaker John Boehner and also telephoned the minority Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, as well as top Democrats.
"The president reiterated his commitment to finding bipartisan solutions to: reduce our deficit in a balanced way, cut taxes for middle class families and small businesses and create jobs," a White House official said.
Obama believed Americans sent a message to Washington by returning him for a second term that both parties should put aside partisan interests to put the economy first, the official said.
But Boehner, who scheduled a press conference for later Wednesday, drew a line in the sand even before Obama's win was sealed, saying the president had "no mandate for raising tax rates."
Obama looks to his legacy
As Obama's victory was confirmed with wins in rust-belt Ohio and his spiritual political home in Iowa, large crowds materialized outside the White House, chanting "four more years" and "O-bama, O-bama."
Republican nominee Romney, 65, deflated and exhausted, offered a classy tribute, as he consoled dejected supporters in Boston moments after phoning Obama to formally concede.
"This is a time of great challenges for America and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation," Romney said.
Obama's victory means he will get the chance to embed his healthcare and Wall Street reforms deep into the fabric of American life. Romney had pledged one of his first acts would be to repeal Obamacare.
The president may also get the chance to reshape the Supreme Court in his liberal image for a generation, a move that would shape policy on issues like abortion and gay rights.
The president will also look abroad as he builds his legacy, and will face an immediate challenge early in 2013 over whether to use military force to thwart Iran's nuclear program.
Obama ran for re-election on a platform of offering a "fair shot" to the middle class, of fulfilling his pledge to end the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, and starting to build a clean energy economy.
World leaders hailed Obama's re-election, with allies pledging to deepen cooperation with the United States on fighting the world economic slump and maintaining security across the globe.
A Myanmar government official announced that Obama would visit the former pariah state on November 19 in what could be his first foreign trip since re-election.
But the president's focus is likely to dwell initially on the tough task of enacting his second term agenda.
Democrats kept the Senate but fell short of the 60-vote super-majority needed to sidestep Republican blocking tactics.
The "fiscal cliff" -- a combination of dramatic spending cuts and tax increases -- is set to take effect January 1 if US lawmakers cannot cut a deal on the deficit by the end of the year.
Obama won with a fiercely negative campaign branding Romney -- a multi-millionaire former corporate turnaround wizard -- as indifferent to the woes of the middle class.
Remarkably, Obama's coalition of Hispanic, black, and young voters turned out in similar numbers to those of his heady change-fueled campaign in 2008, shocking Romney's team and presenting a new American face to the world.
The president was helped in particular by Latino voters, whose strong support was crucial in the western desert state of Nevada and the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado.
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