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What Barack Obama tried to tell America, in the hour of his remarkable victory, is that the nation’s future won on Election Day. Seeking to inspire and to heal, the re-elected president offered an open hand to partisan opponents in the style that has always defined him.

“Tonight,” he said, “despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future.”

In the days ahead there will be time to absorb the magnitude of this moment -– achieved under the cloud of persistent unemployment and a multibillion-dollar campaign of calumny —  but the president clearly knows that he returns to the White House with a renewed mandate. Against great odds, he won nearly all the same states that elected him in 2008 and won the popular vote despite an enormous, angry backlash in the old Confederacy.

Victory conferred on him the authority to speak of the days and years ahead whose agenda he will shape, not alone, but as a proven leader who knows that “we rise or fall together as one nation and one people.” He spoke of a future where the children of immigrants can dream of becoming doctors or diplomats, and the children of workers can dream of becoming president; a future not threatened by excessive debt, worsening inequality, and climate change.

It is an inclusive vision of a nation where politics can be big, not small, as he said, because the goals of public life are great for everyone  — and where the best is still ahead because the adversity, prejudices, and illusions of the past are receding.

“That’s the future we share,” he said. “That’s where we need to go… Our economy is recovering, a decade of war is ending, a long campaign is now over.”

How can he “seize that future,” as he urged us all to do? The conventional wisdom of Washington punditry is already telling the president that he must “work across the aisle” with the Republicans, who will still control the House in January. But while he acknowledged the necessity to reach out to his opponents — and alluded to his long-held bipartisan spirit — he hinted that he has learned something else during his contentious first term and this hard, grinding campaign.

If he hopes to leave a legacy of accomplishment in his second term, he cannot count on the cooperation of the right-wing rump in Congress. If he wants to tax the wealthy, reject austerity, implement Obamacare, and begin to cope with global warming, he will have to rely upon on the people who entrusted him with their votes, their energy, their hope.

“The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote,” he said. “America is about what can be done by us, together.” Mobilizing the public is not only the way to win elections, but the way to win an agenda for the future.

Photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

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