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.
And neither Senator Kerry nor President Bush, if victorious, will face a compliant Congress. It's unlikely that the Democrats will win back control of both the House and Senate. And for the GOP, the narrowness of the partisan split in the Senate means that even if Republicans retain their majority there, it won't be filibuster-proof.
In a way, the situation could be a return to the future. Kerry would face a government divided along lines similar to those experienced by Bill Clinton in his second term. Bush would be in pretty much the same position he was in following 2000.
In terms of Washington's power lineup "we have experienced the next administration already," says Gary Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego.
If past is prologue, President Kerry might end up emulating Clinton in his last four years - zigging toward the other party on big issues, while looking for ways to make small progress on issues important to his base. One implication of this is that getting his healthcare proposal through Congress in anything close to its original form would be a very tough slog.
Similarly, Bush might have problems with his proposal to make personal savings accounts a feature of Social Security - something he has been touting as a major initiative for his second term. There are reasons Bush has not yet pushed these accounts, and they still hold. Retirees worry the change might mean benefit cuts, and costs of a transition to a new Social Security system might be huge. To enact it "he'd really have to mount a massive public-pressure campaign," says Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
American presidents remain perhaps the most influential people in the world, despite their constraints in Washington. The nation's chief executive has enormous leeway to set foreign policy, as President Bush has shown.
Yet on the central issue of Iraq, Bush may have little choice but to march forward, if reelected. US allies have made it clear they won't be sending their own troops to help, meaning no large numbers of US soldiers will come home any time soon.
This can be judged as either staying the course, or being stuck in the course, notes American University political scientist Allan Lichtman.
But it's not clear that Kerry, if he wins, will be able to construct an Iraq policy that looks much different from today's. Kerry says that he would be able to get allies to help in Iraq, where Bush cannot. However, there are many indications that France, Germany, and others would still say "no" to another request for troops, even if it comes from a new resident of the Oval Office.
"Kerry has been much more vigorous in attacking what Bush did [in Iraq] two years ago than in saying what he would do," says Allan Lichtman.
In the end, whoever wins will be limited by the fact that nearly half the nation opposed his election. The US is split into blue and red camps that disdain each other's choices in clothes, music, and food, not to mention political candidates.
That's the theme of many analysts, anyway, and they may well be right. Tuesday's results are likely to depict a nation riven in two, with one side only slightly ahead.
But some social scientists disagree. They say political elites and the media have distorted complex attitudes toward such difficult issues as abortion and homosexuality. Voters seem polarized on these issues because polarized choices are all they are offered, in this view.
"If the views of all Americans, and not just party activists, are taken into account, the people of the United States are actually more centrist than they've been for some time," concludes Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, in a recent article in The Wilson Quarterly.