WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's victory means his economic vision is still alive and about to drive the political conversation with his adversaries. The legacy of Obama's first term is safe and enshrined to history.
Obama will push for higher taxes on the wealthy as a way to shrinking a choking debt and to steer money toward the programs he wants. He will try to land a massive financial deficit-cutting deal with Congress in the coming months and then move on to an immigration overhaul, tax reform and other bipartisan dreams.
He will not have to worry that his health care law will be repealed, or that his Wall Street reforms will be gutted, or that his name will be consigned to the list of one-term presidents who got fired before they could finish.
Yet big honeymoons don't come twice and Republicans won't swoon.
And if Obama cannot end gridlock, his second term will be reduced to veto threats, empty promises, end runs around Congress and legacy-sealing forays into foreign lands.
Voters decided to put back in place all the political players who have made Washington dysfunctional to the point of nearly sending the United States of America into default for the first time ever.
The president likely will be dealing again with a Republican-run House, whose leader, Speaker John Boehner, declared on election night that his party is the one with the mandate: no higher taxes.
Obama will still have his firewall in the Senate, with Democrats likely to hang onto their narrow majority. But they don't have enough to keep Republicans from bottling up any major legislation with delaying tactics.
So the burden falls on the president to find compromise, not just demand it from the other side.
For now, he can revel in knowing what he pulled off.
Obama won despite an economy that sucked away much of the nation's spirit. He won with the highest unemployment rate for any incumbent since the Great Depression. He won even though voters said they thought Romney would be the better choice to end stalemate in Washington.
He won even though a huge majority of voters said they were not better off than they were four years ago — a huge test of survival for a president.
The suspense was over early because Obama won all over the battleground map, and most crucially in Ohio. That's where he rode his bailout support for the auto industry to a victory that crushed Romney's chances.
The reason is that voters wanted the president they knew. They believed convincingly that Obama, not Romney, understood their woes of college costs and insurance bills and sleepless nights. Exit polls shows that voters thought far more of them viewed Obama as the voice of the poor and the middle class, and Romney the guy tilting toward the rich.
The voice of the voter came through from 42-year-old Bernadette Hatcher in Indianapolis, who voted after finishing an overnight shift at a warehouse.
"It's all about what he's doing," she said. "No one can correct everything in four years. Especially the economy."
Formidable and seasoned by life, Romney had in his pocket corporate success and a Massachusetts governor's term and the lessons of a first failed presidential bid.
But he never broke through as the man who would secure people's security and their dreams. He was close the whole time.
"I mean, I looked," said Tamara Johnson of Apex, N.C., a 35-year-old mother of two young children. "I didn't feel I got the answers I wanted or needed to hear. And that's why I didn't sway that way."
The election was never enthralling, and it was fought for far too long in the shallow moments of negative ads and silly comments.
It seemed like the whole country endured it until the end, when the crowds grew and the candidates reached for their most inspiring words.
"Americans don't settle. We build, we aspire, we listen to that voice inside that says 'We can do better," Romney pleaded toward that end.
Americans agreed. They just wanted Obama to take them there.
Incumbents get no transition, so Obama will be tested immediately.
A "fiscal cliff" of expiring tax cuts and budget cuts looms on Jan 1.
If they kick in, economists warn the economy will tank, again. Obama, at least, won the right to fight the fight on his terms.
"If I've won, then I believe that's a mandate for doing it in a balanced way," he said before the election — that is, fixing the budget problem by raising taxes on people instead of just cutting spending. Obama is adamant that he will not agree to extend tax cuts for people making above $200,000 or couples with incomes above $250,000.
He had not even been declared the winner before Boehner offered a warning that the House was still in Republican hands.
"With this vote," Boehner said, "the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates."
Obama, never one to lack from confidence, is ready to take that fight to Congress.
In his eyes, he just won it, thanks to the voters.