The electoral map looks strikingly similar to the one four years ago, but the post-election landscape could not be more different. Four years ago, the president went to Washington with a mandate for sweeping "change," Democratic control of the House and a filibuster-proof Senate.
This time, he faces the same sort of divided government that for the past two years has given us gridlock, a bitter partisan divide and an electorate that can only be described as a house divided.
Is there a mandate in any of this?
Actually, I think there is, at least with a bit of jiu-jitsu.
The mandate is exactly what the president voiced a week ago at this time in the wake of Super Storm Sandy: to put politics aside and bring this country together to deal with the challenges we face. Next week, the president must do what he did last week: be a strong, calming, unifying presence in the storm.
Will Republicans be willing to work with a president they have spent the past four years trying to ensure was a one-termer? Not if they don't have to — particularly given the way the House is divided between Republicans who are more conservative than most Americans and Democrats who are more liberal.
The more important question is whether they believe voters will make them pay a price if they don't. Barack Obama never has to run for office again. Every member of the House and one-third of the Senate are up again in two years.
The challenge for the president is to reach over the heads of his Washington antagonists, to reach out to the governors, especially the 30 Republicans who depend on Washington (which is to say all the departments and agencies in the federal government) to balance their own books and meet extraordinary needs, and to local officials and especially to that undifferentiated mass that politicians refer to as "the American people."
If there is one thing most Americans (if not the entirety of "the American people") can agree on, it is that we hate the way politics is played today — the ugliness, the negativity, the partisanship, the name-calling and screeching of loud mouths on both sides — and ultimately, the paralysis it brings. That may not be a winning issue in campaigns, where negative ads still work, or on television, where screaming rates. But it is the key to forging a governing coalition.
The president's mandate is to heal a house divided.
There will be plenty of name-calling and blame-gaming on the Republican side in the aftermath of this defeat. First, you'll hear that it was the fault of the liberal media and the perpetrators of vote fraud. You'll hear assorted horror stories about how the liberal media sat on news about what went wrong in Libya and the snags in the Sandy recovery effort.
Then, in the tradition of all losing efforts, you'll see Republicans get into the old circle and start shooting inward: Romney was too conservative (or not conservative enough); he wasn't aggressive enough; Republicans are doing themselves in on social issues (a pregnancy that results from rape is not a "gift from God," and yes, you can get pregnant from rape); they are doing themselves in by being defensive on social issues; Republicans need to be tougher or not so tough on immigration; Republicans need to stand their ground because they got re-elected, too. Conservatives will say, "When you run two Democrats, the real one wins."
My two cents, which is certain to be returned, is that Republicans need to look themselves in the mirror, as Democrats did after the losses of the '80s, and move their party closer to where Americans stand.
I don't think they'll do that willingly. I don't think there are too many Republicans who will be heading (back) to Washington ready to cooperate. But most of them are, first and foremost, politicians. And if they face voters who respond to the president's message of working together, they just might have no choice.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.