Barack Obama Reelected on Edge of Fiscal Cliff

The Democratic incumbent defeats his Republican challenger, but Congress remains divided.

Incumbent president Barack Obama won a second term on Tuesday after a hotly-contested election. While his Democratic Party did not regain control of the House of Representatives, it hold on to its majority in the Senate, inaugurating four more years of divided government.

The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, had been neck and neck with the president in national preelection polls. But in most of the crucial swing states, including Ohio and Virginia, the incumbent eked out sometimes narrow victories, providing him with a comfortable Electoral College majority — even if the race in Florida was still too close to call on Wednesday morning.

Americans elect their president and vice president not by popular vote but through an electoral college system that advantages smaller states. Nevertheless, the outcome of the popular vote hardly ever differs from the outcome in the Electoral College. The most recent exception was in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won roughly half a million more votes nationwide but George W. Bush won five more points in the Electoral College. Obama on Tuesday won a little over one million more votes than his challenger.

Whatever the outcome, the two parties in Congress have little alternative but to work together after what has been a bitter election campaign unless they are prepared to let the United States career off the “fiscal cliff” — a combination of spending cuts and tax increases worth half a trillion dollars that is set to go into effect under existing legislation. If lawmakers don’t act to stop it, economists warn that the country could plunge into recession again.

To balance spending in the long term, comprehensive entitlement and tax reform is needed. For the last two years, the two parties haven’t been able to compromise. Democrats refuse to reform entitlements; Republicans won’t raise taxes. Obama adhered to his party’s positions in the campaign as he vehemently criticized a Republican plan to privatize health care for seniors and proposed to raise taxes on the wealthy to reduce the nation’s deficit. It’s doubtful if either plan can be passed through a divided legislature.