US elections: the morning after the night before

President Obama’s emphatic second term victory makes history in many ways, but the real legacy of last night is the opportunity to embed progressive change in America.

Before you think I’ve got high on the fumes of victory or had a few too many cocktails at Obama HQ, the challenges are obviously still great. America remains a divided country, as the closeness of the popular vote shows. The House stays Republican, so therefore does the deadlock.

But anyone who saw Karl Rove’s meltdown on Fox News last night will know just how much defeating President Obama meant to the right.

Defeat would have meant 2008 could have been written off as a blip, a post George W Bush quirk that had no significance after all.

Sure, Obama would still have been the first black president, but on the substance, the notion of hope rather than fear, the politics of optimism and inclusion, would have been defeated.

Now Obamacare is secure. Some House Republicans will no doubt spend time attacking it, but with the Senate remaining Democrat, any such moves will continue to be futile.

But one crucial element of the presidency isn’t just the legislation you pass, it’s the tone that can be set from the bully pulpit of office. And that’s how a second term can also embed change, even if the legislative route remains challenging.

As President Obama said repeatedly on the stump, he believes ‘no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter who you love, you can pursue your own happiness and you can make it here in America if you try.’

It’s that social change where the nature of the national debate is felt. Just compare the ballot initiatives of 2012 with 2004.

Marriage equality was supported in referendums in Washington, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland – the first time the law has been changed by a vote of the people rather than decision by the courts or state legislature. And by electing Tammy Baldwin to the Senate, Wisconsin has returned the first openly gay member of the US Senate.

New Hampshire voters were responsible for another first: the entire Congressional and Senate delegation are now women. It was also a treat to see the two Senate candidates who had made the most egregious comments about women’s rights, Todd Aikin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) both lose their races.

But, here’s the problem. Even today’s papers are speculating on who the runners and riders are going to be in 2016. Obama will be hoping now the campaigning over, he will actually be able to get to do some governing.

So, for his second term, Obama needs a defining narrative of what he wants to use the next four years for. This will be his best defence against claims of being a lame duck president as soon as he in inaugurated next January.

One that manages expectations, that acknowledges change will be incremental, but still shows leadership at home and abroad on the economy, immigration, education, equality and a foreign policy.

It’s a daunting agenda. But as we know, winning sure beats the hell out of losing.

PS My prediction for Obama’s total in the electoral college was 303 or more. Florida may provide us with the ‘or more’, but one thing is certain: fortunately it doesn’t have the significance of my first election night in the States, standing in the rain in Nashville, not knowing what on earth would happen next. Little did we know.