WASHINGTON — Newly re-elected, President Obama moved quickly Wednesday to open negotiations with congressional Republican leaders over the main unfinished business of his term — a major deficit-reduction deal to avert a looming fiscal crisis — as he began preparing for a second term that will include significant Cabinet changes.
Mr. Obama, while still at home in Chicago at midday, called Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in what was described as a brief and cordial exchange on the need to reach some budget compromise in the lame-duck session of Congress starting next week. Later at the Capitol, Mr. Boehner responded before assembled reporters with his most explicit and conciliatory offer to date on Republicans' willingness to raise tax revenues, but not top rates, as part of a spending cut package.
“Mr. President, this is your moment,” Mr. Boehner said a day after congressional Republicans suffered election losses but kept their House majority. “We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.”
His statement came a few hours after Sen. Harry Reid, leader of a Democratic Senate majority that made unexpected gains, extended his own olive branch to the opposition. While saying that Democrats would not be pushed around, Mr. Reid, a former boxer, added, “It’s better to dance than to fight.”
Both men’s remarks followed Mr. Obama’s own overture in his victory speech.
“In the coming weeks and months,” he said, “I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.”
The efforts from both sides suggested the urgency of acting in the few weeks before roughly $700 billion in automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts take effect at year's end — the so-called fiscal cliff.
Mr. Obama’s more narrow victory was 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, Mr. 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 President won at least 303 electoral votes to 206 for Republican Mitt Romney, with 270 needed for victory, and had a near-sweep of the nine most hotly contested states.
Mr. Obama claimed Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Mr. Romney got North Carolina.
Florida remained too close to call late Wednesday.
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; and a menacing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Sharp differences with Republicans in Congress on taxes, spending, deficit reduction, immigration, and more await.
At the White House, the President also prepared to shake up his staff to help him tackle daunting economic and international challenges. He will study lists of candidates for various positions that a senior adviser, Pete Rouse, assembled in recent weeks as Obama crisscrossed the country campaigning.
The most prominent members of his Cabinet will leave soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner long ago said they would depart after the first term, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, previously the head of the CIA, has signaled that he wants to return to California sometime in the coming year. Also expected to depart is David Plouffe, one of the President’s closest confidants.
Among other Cabinet officers who may leave are Ron Kirk, the trade representative; Steven Chu, the energy secretary; Ken Salazar, the interior secretary; Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary; and Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency chief. But Valerie Jarrett, the president's longtime friend and senior adviser, plans to stay, according to Democrats close to her.
Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ended up replacing about half of their Cabinet members between terms, and Mr. Obama could end up doing about the same.
It may be weeks before Mr. Obama starts making personnel announcements. His first priority is policy, and its politics — positioning for the budget showdown in the lame-duck session, to try to avoid the fiscal cliff by agreeing with Republicans to alternative deficit-reduction measures.
If Mr. Obama got a mandate for anything after a campaign in which he was vague on second-term prescriptions, he can and will claim one for his argument that wealthy Americans like himself and his vanquished Republican rival, Mitt Romney, should pay higher income taxes. That stance was a staple of Mr. Obama’s campaign speeches. And most voters, in surveys of those leaving the polls Tuesday, agreed with him.
Specifically, Mr. Obama has called — over Republicans’ objections — for extending the Bush-era income tax cuts, which expire Dec. 31, only for households with taxable income below $250,000 a year.
Speaking for Republicans after a conference call with his congressional colleagues, Mr. Boehner on Wednesday said he was ready to accept a budget deal that raised federal revenues, but not the top rates on high incomes. And the deal, he said, also would have to overhaul both the tax code and programs like Medicare and Medicaid, whose growth as the population ages is driving projections of unsustainable future debt.
Instead of allowing the top rates to go up, which Republicans say would harm the economy, Mr. Boehner said Washington should end some deductions and loopholes to raise revenues. The economic growth that would result from a significant deficit reduction compromise would bring in additional revenues as well, he said.