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President Barack Obama speaks at his election night party, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

President Barack Obama speaks at his election night party, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago

(Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Margaret Wente

Next four years for Obama will be a long, hard slog Add to ...

After a $6-billion election campaign and a zillion polls, what’s striking is that the needle barely budged. Six months polls ago the polls predicted last night’s outcome– a slim but decisive victory for Barack Obama. The incumbency advantage is important and it’s awfully hard for any challenger to overcome it.

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It’s not that campaigns don’t matter. They do. But Romney couldn’t close the sale. Americans weren’t clear enough about what he’d do, and a lot of them doubted he was on their side. Obama, for all his flaws, is a known quantity. And although the opposition blames him directly for the lousy economy and poor job creation, I think voters are more sophisticated than that. They know the President does not have a magic wand to fix these things, and that it’s going to take a while.

For Obama, the next four years are not going to be about transformation They will be a long, hard slog. He will have to get serious about the U.S.’s long-term debt and spending problems. He will have to deliver some tough messages to the middle class. And he will have to find a way to build bridges with the hostile Republicans in Congress. Bill Clinton was good at this kind of thing. Mr. Obama is very bad at it. He will have to do better at disguising his contempt for his opponents.

American presidential elections are a tawdry circus of big money, phony issues and vicious attack ads. They go on too long. They are the modern equivalent of gladiatorial combat where the aim is to cripple your opponents and leave them bloodied and dying in the mud as the mobs roar their approval. But there’s something noble about them as well. The voters speak, everybody accepts the results (well, most of the time), and life goes on. The elections are relatively clean and no one actually dies. I wonder how many people around the world were watching, and marvelling that this untidy, messy, ugly process actually works.

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