WASHINGTON - The election laid bare a dual - and dueling - nation, politically speaking, jaggedly split down the middle on the presidency and torn over much else. It seems you can please only half of the people nearly all of the time.
Americans retained the fractious balance of power in re-electing President Barack Obama, a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, altogether serving as guarantors of the gridlock that voters say they despise. Slender percentages separated winner and loser from battleground to battleground, and people in exit polls said yea and nay in roughly equal measure to some of the big issues of the day.
Democracy doesn't care if you win big, only that you win. Tuesday was a day of decision as firmly as if Obama had run away with the race. Democrats are ebullient and, after a campaign notable for its raw smackdowns, words of conciliation are coming from leaders on both sides, starting with the plea from defeated Republican rival Mitt Romney that his crestfallen supporters pray for the president.
But after the most ideologically polarized election in years, Obama's assertion Wednesday morning that America is "more than a collection of red states and blue states" was more of an aspiration than a snapshot of where the country stands.
"It's going to take a while for this thing to heal," said Ron Bella, 59, a Cincinnati lawyer who lives in Alexandria, Ky. He is relieved Obama won, but some of his co-workers are in a "sour mood" about it.
"They feel like the vast majority of the country wanted Romney, and the East and the West coasts wanted Obama," he said. "I'm not sure exactly why that is, but there just seems to be such hatred for Obama out there."
Compromise was a popular notion in the hours after Obama's victory and an unavoidable one, given the reality of divided government. But the familiar contours of partisan Washington were also in evidence, especially the notion that compromise means you do things my way.
As Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York put it, "If you refuse to compromise, we are going to beat you." Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the election showed "if you are an extremist tea party Republican, you are going to lose."
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said pointedly that Republicans will meet Obama halfway "to the extent he wants to move to the political center" and propose solutions "that actually have a chance of passing."