WASHINGTON -- His lease renewed in trying economic times, President Barack Obama claimed a second term from an incredibly divided electorate and immediately braced for daunting challenges and progress that comes only in fits and starts.
"We have fought our way back and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come," Obama said.
The same voters who gave Obama four more years in office also elected a divided Congress, sticking with the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans kept their House majority.
It was a sweet victory Tuesday night for Obama, but nothing like the jubilant celebration in 2008, when his hope-and-change election as the nation's first black president captivated the world. This time, Obama ground it out with a stay-the-course pitch that essentially boiled down to a plea for more time to make things right and a hope that Congress will be more accommodating than in the past.
The vanquished Republican, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, tried to set a more conciliatory tone on the way off the stage.
"At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering," Romney said after a campaign filled with it. "Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke of a dual mandate. "If there is a mandate, it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs," he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had a more harsh assessment.
"The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president's first term," McConnell said. "They have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together" with a balanced Congress.
Obama won at least 303 electoral votes to 206 for Romney, with 270 needed for victory, and had a near-sweep of the nine most hotly contested states.
But the close breakdown in the popular vote showed Americans' differences over how best to meet the nation's challenges. With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, the popular vote went 50 percent for Obama to 48.4 percent for Romney, a businessman-turned-politician. Romney had argued that Obama failed to turn around the economy and he said it was time for a new approach that combined lower taxes and a less intrusive government.
Obama's re-election means his signature health care overhaul will endure, as will the Wall Street overhaul enacted after the economic meltdown. The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan will continue apace. With an aging roster of justices, the president probably will have at least one more nomination to the Supreme Court.
The most pressing challenges immediately ahead for the 44th president are all too familiar: an economy still baby-stepping its way toward full health; 23 million people out of work or in search of better jobs; civil war in Syria; a menacing standoff over Iran's nuclear program.
Sharp differences with Republicans in Congress on taxes, spending, deficit reduction, immigration and more await. While Republicans control the House, Democrats have at least 52 votes in the Senate and Republicans 45. One newly elected independent isn't saying which party he'll side with, and races in Montana and North Dakota were not yet called.
Votes also were being counted Wednesday in the Montana and Washington gubernatorial races.
Even before Obama gets to his second inaugural on Jan. 20, he must deal with the threatened "fiscal cliff." A combination of automatic tax increases and steep across-the-board spending cuts are set to take effect in January if Washington doesn't quickly reach a budget deal. Experts have warned that the economy could tip back into recession with an agreement.
Despite long lines at polls in many places, turnout overall looked to be down from four years ago as the president pieced together a winning coalition of women, young people, minorities and lower-income voters that reflected the country's changing demographics. Obama's superior ground organization in the most contested states was critical to his success.
Obama's victory speech - he'd written a concession, too, just in case - reflected the realities of the rough road ahead.
"By itself the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock, or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward," Obama said.
"But that common bond is where we must begin. Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over, and whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you and you have made me a better president."