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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at an election campaign rally in Concord, N.H., Nov. 4, 2012.JASON REED/Reuters

The agent of change and hope has become the status quo. The Barack Obama who electrified the U.S. electorate in 2008 is gone. The greyer man in his place faces a skeptical America and will have a hostile House of Representatives on his hands. Now the really hard work begins – the work of becoming the great reconciler he vowed to be in his first term, but never became.

Mr. Obama came to the presidency during the greatest U.S. financial disaster since the Great Depression, and with his victory Tuesday night, he has an opportunity to put the economy on a firm footing for the long-term – or, conversely, to send it toppling off a cliff. There is no choice now, either for Mr. Obama or for the Republicans in Congress. In a divided country, he and Republicans need to cut each other some slack, in the country's interest.

People who admire Mr. Obama as the ultimate self-made politician may have felt let down that he offered no ambitious program, nothing audacious. But the conservative in him triumphed over the reformer because the central issue was what to do about an economy still struggling to its feet, where the perils are many. It was Mr. Romney who spoke of hope and change, Mr. Romney who offered the more audacious prescriptions, including deep, broad-based tax cuts. Mr. Obama offered the more cautious approach, based on spending cuts, and some personal tax increases.

The challenges facing an Obama presidency are as great as those from his first term. Then, the banking system was collapsing; automakers were in freefall; the housing balloon had lost all its air. The stimulus program he oversaw – started by his predecessor, George W. Bush – helped stabilize the economy. He held out a lifeline to vehicle manufacturers, brought regulatory sanity back to Wall Street; and today, the housing sector is back on terra firma.

The challenge today is to begin knocking down the deficit while continuing to heal an economy with a stubbornly high unemployment rate, in a world in which the Asian and European markets for U.S. goods and services are having difficulties of their own. He needs to work with the Republicans who have fought him tooth-and-nail. The approaching "fiscal cliff" (automatic tax hikes and spending cuts, if Congress takes no action by year's end) makes bipartisan co-operation a necessity. No one said the job was supposed to be easy. It will take audacity.