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Americans still see their better selves in Barack Obama.

Four years after captivating the country to become the first black president, Mr. Obama overcame daunting economic conditions and a bitter climate in Washington to earn a second term Tuesday.

Mr. Obama is one of the few world leaders to retain his job amid a punishing global recession. His win is a testament to the enduring draw of his personal narrative and modern message of inclusiveness.

It also signals that enough Americans continue to believe in his message of hope and change.

But as Mr. Obama prepared to address supporters in Chicago, where a cold rain outside failed to dampen spirits inside the Lakeside Center, it was nevertheless clear that many voters had defected from the coalition that carried him to victory four years ago.

Mr. Obama's victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney was narrower than his 2008 win against John McCain, and the country appears nearly as politically divided as it was when George W. Bush scraped through in 2000 and 2004. The two candidates were locked in dead heat in Florida that recalled the rancorous contest there in 2000.

Mr. Obama's so-called Midwestern firewall of Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa proved decisive in enabling him to rack up the 270 electoral college votes needed for victory.

But the President's second mandate may be no easier than his first. Republicans were set to retain control of the House of Representatives after Tuesday's election, promising a continuation of the partisan clashes that have prevented progress in Washington on numerous issues, including the budget mess.

While discontent with the pace of the recovery likely explains some of the decline in support for Mr. Obama, he has nevertheless become the first incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt to win re-election with jobless rate near 8 per cent. It now stands at 7.9 per cent, higher than the level Ronald Reagan faced when he ran for a second term in 1984.

Mr. Obama once again monopolized the support of blacks, Hispanics and new Americans. But white voters chose Mr. Romney in even bigger numbers than they picked John McCain four years ago. Mr. Romney's inability to make inroads among Latinos, the country's fastest growing major demographic group, augurs badly for his party's future as a viable governing alternative.

Mr. Obama's nationally unpopular move to inject $62-billion (U.S.) into the U.S. operations of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009 worked in the his favour in the critical swing state of Ohio, where one in eight jobs depend on the auto sector.

The President held a two percentage point lead in Ohio with more than half the votes counted. Polls taken before the election showed Mr. Obama trailing Mr. Romney by as much as 30 percentage points among white working class voters everywhere but in Ohio, where the two were running almost even among that group.

The $2.6-billion (U.S.) presidential race between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney was one of the negative campaigns in recent memory. The Republican nominee's considerable wealth and previous career as a private equity executive made him a nearly perfect foil for Mr. Obama as he made his case for higher taxes on the rich and a more ambitious program of public investment to ensure a "fair shot" for underprivileged Americans.

Mr. Romney played to type, musing about his wife's Cadillacs and undertaking plans to install a car elevator in his California vacation home. When he finally released his tax returns, they showed he paid an effective income tax rate of only 14 per cent in 2011. The Obama campaign unleashed a new round of ads painting him as a plutocrat.

But Mr. Romney did himself more damage with one fundraiser than his rival managed to inflict with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ads. The former Massachusetts governor was caught on tape at the fundraiser disparaging the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders who sought government handouts.

Still, Mr. Romney managed a remarkable recovery by pivoting to the centre during the final weeks of the campaign. In the first debate on Oct. 3, a moderate-sounding Mr. Romney overwhelmed a strangely passive Mr. Obama in a development that threatened to upend the race in the Republican's favour.

The arrival of Hurricane Sandy reversed the trend, however, and allowed Mr. Obama to dominate the spotlight as the commander-in-chief overseeing the disaster response efforts. He even got unexpected and effusive praise from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had been one of Mr. Romney's most important campaign surrogates.

In the final days, both candidates claimed the mantle of change.

"The president promised change, but he just couldn't deliver it," Mr. Romney insisted at his rallies. "Accomplishing real change is not just something I talk about. It's something I have done and I will do as the next president of the United States."

But Mr. Obama was not about to let his rival usurp one half of his 2008 slogan.

"We know what change looks like, and what he's selling ain't it," Mr. Obama said repeatedly in the final days of the campaign. "I know what change looks like because I've fought for it. I've got the scars to prove it."

And now it looks he also has a second term to achieve more of it.