CHICAGO — Only hours after the thunderous ovations ended and President Obama had managed a short night’s sleep, the challenges beyond his hard-won victory quickly eclipsed the sights and sounds of a raucous celebration.
America’s longest war, in Afghanistan, has not ended. The nuclear ambitions of Iran remain a threat. The economy is still struggling, the federal debt has not evaporated — and the bitter divisions that continue to hobble the country need to be bridged.
Although Obama undoubtedly savored his triumph, the business of the presidency in difficult times encroached immediately. Obama placed calls overnight and in the morning to congressional leaders, including stubborn adversaries, in an effort to find common ground.
“The president said he believed that the American people sent a message in [the] election that leaders in both parties need to put aside their partisan interests and work with purpose to put the interests of the American people and the American economy first,” according to a White House statement.
Given the political gridlock of Obama’s first term, making that happen would be a towering accomplishment.
The president outlined his bipartisan objectives in his phone calls to the lawmakers: Reduce the deficit “in a balanced way,” which for Obama includes higher taxes on the wealthy; cut taxes for middle-class families and small businesses; and create jobs.
Without the burden of looking toward another campaign, Obama should have more political flexibility to deal with Republicans and members of his own party. Whether he uses that running room effectively will shape his legacy.
“Now that he’s free from worrying about reelection, if he can’t put the public interest above his party, something’s wrong. This is his chance,” said Todd Domke, a Republican strategist.
“He’s got to realize that to have a greater place in the history books, he needs this second term to overcome the polarization and really move the economy forward.”
Negotiations about the looming “fiscal cliff” will give Obama a grand stage on which to gather the warring players and forge a compromise to avert the huge automatic spending cuts and tax increases that lawmakers approved last year to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist, said he hopes that excessive budget cuts are not part of any deal.
“We can’t cut our way to prosperity,” Begala said. “We need the president’s balanced approach — pay down the deficit by cutting spending, asking high-income Americans to pay what they paid under President Clinton, and create jobs by doing a little nation-building at home. And we should start in the Northeast, where the victims of Sandy are still suffering.”
One day after the election, the business world showed its unease. The Standard & Poor’s index and Dow Jones industrial average each closed 2.4 percent lower on Wednesday.
Although the markets’ slide might be only a slight adjustment, Domke said, it also could be an indicator of weak consumer and investor confidence in Obama.
Beyond economic issues, the president will face a persistent, global threat from militant Islam and the complications of safely removing US troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Amid these concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been Obama’s point-person in volatile parts of the Muslim world, will not return for the second term. Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, is considered a possible replacement.
Back home, Obama will be pressed to reform the immigration system, which emerged as a key issue, particularly in the Republican primaries, because of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s suggestion that illegal immigrants should “self-deport.”
Obama, who already is allowing children of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States if they meet certain conditions, will be expected to move toward comprehensive changes by Hispanics who supported him overwhelmingly at the ballot box.
Another key area where Obama could make a profound mark is in appointments to the Supreme Court, which has four justices at least 74 years old. Any changes in the high court, which has been split starkly along ideological lines, could affect the direction of US law for generations.
“That legacy will endure for decades,” Begala said.
Obama also could face a few vacancies in his Cabinet. In addition to replacing Clinton, the president is likely to need a replacement for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who helped Obama navigate the perils of the banking crisis in the first days of the administration.
“I think the president . . . should have a chance, and will have a chance, to have somebody excellent and capable come in and help him,” Geithner said in September.
While many of Obama’s challenges require long-term planning, the day-to-day demands of crisis management also clamor for attention. Obama spent part of Wednesday morning being briefed about the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, an ordeal now complicated by high winds, rain, and snow expected from a new storm.
The president, however, carved out time for simple pleasures. After leaving his Chicago home, he stopped downtown to visit campaign headquarters and thank volunteers and staff, who greeted him with a long, loud standing ovation.
Then, at O’Hare International Airport, the president walked to Air Force One with his arm around his daughter Sasha, who raced him up the stairs to the waiting aircraft.
His wife, Michelle, and their other daughter, Malia, followed behind, holding hands, as they headed back to the White House and the next chapter of the Obama presidency.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@