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After victory, reality

The elections did little to wipe away the deep challenges and frictions facing the nation, and if there was a morning-after metaphor that crystallized that reality it might have been this:

Chicago awoke Wednesday to a pair of economic jolts, one serious and the other in the realm of melancholy. Hometown wireless firm U.S. Cellular said it is leaving the Chicago market and shedding jobs, and a $1 billion locally based startup — the Obama campaign — completed its primary mission and now will scale back.

The stock market nose-dived, with investors rattled by the twin specters of economic slowdown in Europe and continued gridlock in Washington as Barack Obama and the Democrats retained control of the White House and Senate while Republicans held on to the House.

In the afterglow of his re-election over Mitt Romney, the president called congressional leaders of both parties and told them Tuesday's results sent a message that American people want compromise, not ideological entrenchment.

Obama "said he believed that the American people sent a message in yesterday's election that leaders in both parties need to put aside their partisan interests and work with common purpose to put the interests of the American people and the American economy first," the White House said in a statement on the conversations.

His particular interest: solving a partisan divide over tax and spending priorities that threatens to send the U.S. economy careening over a fiscal cliff at year's end.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was quick to sound a conciliatory note, saying he, too, hoped to "find the common ground that has eluded us." That compromise, he added, could even include higher taxes "under the right conditions" — a hint of a possible hedge on long-standing GOP opposition to tax hikes of all kind.

But Boehner has made similar comments before, and without details, it is difficult to gauge how far he is willing to stray from Republican orthodoxy.

If anything, Tuesday's results should give Obama a stronger hand in negotiations. National exit polling found that 47 percent of those surveyed said tax hikes should be imposed on those earning more than $250,000 annually, the same position as held by Obama. Only 35 percent said taxes should not be raised on anyone.

The depth of the nation's ideological chasm was not lost on TyRon Turner, a small-business owner from Inglewood, Calif., who flew to Chicago to attend Obama's victory rally at McCormick Place and followed that up Wednesday with a pilgrimage to the president's Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side.

Obama could lead the country to a new conversation about polarization, Turner said, but not alone. Republican leaders have to be a part of it, too, he said.

"Both sides have to give up something," Turner continued. "We have to clear the slate. Start over."

For Republicans, however, the post-election aftermath seemed consumed by recriminations and soul-searching over their failure to retake power in Washington, despite four years of economic doldrums that should have made Obama vulnerable.

The party's problems were equally on display in Illinois, where Democrats who already controlled Springfield increased their majorities in the House and Senate to veto-proof margins, despite their passage last year of an income tax increase that could have turned voters against them.

Tuesday's exit polls strongly suggested that a Republican party whose base is increasingly whiter and older may have an increasingly difficult path remaining competitive in an era when the electorate is growing younger and more diverse.

Particularly notable was the increase of Hispanics in the electorate, who comprised 10 percent of Tuesday's voter pool but whose share of the overall vote is predicted to double over the next decade. More than 70 percent cast ballots for Obama, the exit polls showed.

Those demographic groups are likely to be turned off by Republican resistance to immigration reform, as well as the party's stands on an array of social issues, including gay rights and abortion rights.

"It's clear that with our losses in the presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Another topic to be mulled by the GOP is the outsize influence of the tea party, which on Tuesday proved to be more curse than blessing.

The party's shot at retaking the Senate was set back by conservative candidates in Indiana and Missouri who rode tea-party backing to their party's nominations but then alienated women voters in the general election with impolitic observations about rape and abortion.

As for Obama, the wrestling quickly began over the breadth of his victory and whether he is now better positioned to impose his will on a divided Washington. He spent the night with his family in Kenwood, but also found time to make those calls to congressional leaders before boarding Air Force One to return to a divided Washington in the afternoon.

When George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, GOP pundits such as syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer were quick to declare his victory a mandate, especially in light of the results four years earlier, when Bush lost the popular vote but narrowly won the electoral college. Bush seemed to agree, declaring soon after the 2004 vote: "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital," he said, "and now I intend to spend it."

Obama was not so bold in the first hours following his re-election. Upon arriving back at the White House, the president was greeted by a question shouted by a reporter: "Do you feel you have a mandate?"

He did not answer.

Vice President Joe Biden, however, did invoke a nuanced version of the "M" word while talking to reporters on Air Force Two as he returned from Chicago to his home in Delaware.

Biden said there appeared to be a "clear sort of mandate" from voters about how to deal with tax policy, with the American people "coming much closer to our view." But he said he and the president are open to compromise and are eager to move quickly on a deal.

Obama's edge over Romney in the electoral college will clearly be larger than the one Bush enjoyed over Democrat John Kerry in 2004. Some votes were still being tallied Wednesday, but Obama's unofficial lead in the popular vote — about 50 percent versus 48 percent for Romney — was comparable in size to the one Bush amassed eight years ago.

Before leaping to a conclusion about what that might mean, it may be important to consider this. Bush's party controlled both houses of Congress after the 2004 elections, an asset Obama does not enjoy.

Even with that advantage, Bush was unable to gain traction on his priority: the partial privatization of Social Security, a change many Republicans still advocate but Obama opposes.

Tribune Washington Bureau's Christi Parsons contributed.

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