CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama scored himself a second term in the White House on Tuesday, nabbing nearly all of the key battleground states and proving, resoundingly, that his message about lifting the middle class resonates with the majority of Americans.
"The task of perfecting our union moves forward. It moves forward because of you. It moves forward because you reaffirmed the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope," Obama said in his victory speech at McCormick Place.
Thousands of supporters here had already been screaming for hours before Obama locked in 270 electoral votes. One by one, he and other Democrats had been winning in key districts and states. So by the time Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their families walked out on stage, the cheers in the hall were deafening.
"You, the American people, reminded us that while our road ahead has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, 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," said Obama, who got choked up at times as he gave his speech.
The feeling of being on a shared journey was felt among those in the crowd, many of whom had been helping Obama since day one, 582 days ago, when he first launched his reelection campaign on April 4, 2011.
Majorie Merrill, an elderly woman with a walker, was among the first out before the cameras celebrating.
"There has been so, so much I've been doing for the president to be elected," Merrill said, swinging her walker slightly to the music. "I pray a lot, for one thing. I donate. I go to the phone banks when I can."
She said it was his message about everybody deserving an equal chance in life that really stuck with her. "I knew he would win. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it."
Obama vowed during his speech that, in a second term, he would continue to listen to people who may disagree with him and said that he is "more determined and more inspired than ever" about the work that needs to get done for the country.
"I have never been more hopeful about our future ... and I ask you to sustain that hope."
That hope is what famously drove Obama to victory in 2008, and late in the 2012 cycle, it is what ultimately kept his supporters with him once again.
In the final days of the race, when both campaigns were scrambling to get in more time in Ohio, HuffPost drove around and talked to dozens of Democrats there to get a sense of how they were feeling about Obama's prospects. The one thing that was clear among all of them was how much they were willing to endure to keep Obama in the White House.
Cleveland early voters who stood in line for hours in the cold on Saturday and Sunday said they were annoyed by the wait, they were hungry, they had other places to be. But no way were they about to leave and miss their chance to vote for Obama, especially when they knew their votes in Cuyahoga County mattered so much.
"I don't mind the wait," said Julie Chen, who shivered for more than two hours before she got inside. "I don't want to rush" through the ballot on Election Day, she said.
Indeed, people's enthusiasm for voting for Obama that weekend seemed to turn what should have been an agonizing wait into a block party. The Jackson Five was blasting from speakers set up on a street corner. Volunteers with different groups were handing out food and warm drinks -- Obama campaign volunteers showed up with 50 pizzas -- to try to keep people content as they stood in the 41-degree weather. People were chatting with their neighbors in line like old friends as a teenaged rap group walked along on the street, rapping, "no more drama, vote for Obama."
One Democratic voter who drove up to assess the line -- and then proceeded to drive away again when she saw how long it was -- gasped when HuffPost asked if she planned to vote at all.
"Oh damn girl! Come on! Obama all the way baby!" said Helen Pighee, who said she'd be "the first one in line" at 6:00 a.m. on Election Day.
The fact that Obama made a point to personally visit some of the smaller towns in Ohio also made a big impression on his supporters. Democrats in the town of Mentor said the fact that Obama held a rally there over the weekend and directly engaged with them made all the difference in their community.
"It's a good idea he came here," said Shannon Lozada, who didn’t even make it inside the event but was thrilled to see Obama's motorcade. "After Romney was in Lake Erie, that's when we saw a lot of momentum for him in the area. Signs going up at businesses. I was hoping he was going to come here."
As the excitement of victory starts to fade, questions over what type of mandate lays before the president will be litigated in the weeks ahead. The first test will come quickly. Before he is sworn in to office for his second term, Obama has to deal with the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and the looming fiscal cliff. Shortly thereafter, he will be asking Congress to increase the debt ceiling once more, a proposition that proved difficult and politically harmful when confronted in 2011.
Some of the obstacles that confront a second-term Obama are structural. The House of Representatives remains in Republican control. And while Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will still be the majority leader, he won't have anywhere close to a filibuster-proof majority. So Obama will have to build coalitions to get legislation passed.
Still, the election should give him a lift on that front. A strong showing among Hispanic voters lays the framework for the president to make a push for comprehensive immigration reform, or at least a scaled-down version, lest Republicans risk alienating a group of voters increasingly valuable to their electoral equation. And while president did buckle on the Bush tax cuts once before, he know he holds more chips now. They will expire across the board without his signature, after which he can craft a tax-cut package of his own.
The biggest legislative opening that the president now has, ironically, is in stopping things from happening. His signature health care law will be implemented with minimal opposition (mostly from the states). His regulatory reforms won't be repealed. And the likelihood that he will be able to appoint one or several Supreme Court justices means that he will likely protect abortion rights for years, if not decades, to come.
Second terms, in the end, are often more problematic than they first appear. And Obama may be hesitant to claim a mandate. But the margin of his Electoral College win will be bigger than George W. Bush's. And the fact that the stagnant economy -- which hampered him in during the first four years -- is seemingly turning around gives him obvious space to maneuver during the next four years.
Amanda Jones, one of the lucky few to snag a ticket into Obama's election night party in Chicago, said she thinks things are going to be different in Washington now that Obama proved he has the majority of Americans on his side.
"What it does is show that the American people want to fulfill the things he wants to fulfill," Jones said. "And I believe it's going to be better."