Winner's tough task: governing
The race has left Americans even more polarized, creating a daunting challenge for next president to unite a nation.
After the thrill of victory fades and the inaugural balls have ended, the winner of Tuesday's election may face an unpleasant reality: Winning was the easy part. Governing the nation in the wake of such a close and hard-fought campaign could be an extraordinarily difficult task.
That's due to the nature of both US problems and politics. It's hard enough to deal with Iraq and terrorism - not to mention the future of healthcare and Social Security. It's that much harder to do so at a time of record deficits, with a Congress that seems to grow more polarized by the day.
This doesn't mean the presidency has been rendered powerless. If nothing else, the occupant of the Oval Office will make world-shaping military and foreign policy decisions from 2005 through 2008.
It does mean that George Bush or John Kerry will probably have to be flexible in his domestic agenda, while steering a careful course between partisanship and accommodation.
"Whoever wins, I don't think they're in for a happy couple of years," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
In terms of governance, perhaps the most salient fact the president will face is this: It isn't the Era of Good Feeling. During that period of the early 19th century, US politicians generally felt secure from foreign problems and optimistic about economic development. Tuesday might better be called the Era of Raw Emotions. The two great parties that govern America are evenly balanced, and resort to increasingly negative and desperate measures to win their quadrennial tugs of war.
In this climate Tuesday's losing side is likely to be sullen at best, and possibly litigious. It's hard to overstate the personal enmity that boils through today's politics - witness Vice President Dick Cheney's obscenity-laced encounter with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont earlier this year.