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Judy’s Notebook: America Divided but Looking for Leadership

At the far western end of the Oklahoma panhandle, in the middle of the High Plains, sits rural Cimarron County, the only county in the U.S. that borders four states. It fits into Oklahoma’s intersection with Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. President Obama won 9.6 percent of the vote in Cimarron; just 115 votes. I ran across this while checking the vote breakdown in the state where I was born.

There are other spots in rural America where the president didn’t find many fans. In Winston County, Ala., he picked up 13.2 percent of the vote; in Grant County, W.Va., 15.6 percent; and in Franklin County, Utah, just 5.8 percent. Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia and Utah, along with 20 other states, all went for Mitt Romney, a couple by better than two-to-one.

If the whole country had been that unenthusiastic about Mr. Obama, he wouldn’t have been re-elected, of course. But because he prevailed in the hard-fought battleground states (you know their names by heart: Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, and so on…) and because he ran up huge totals in highly populated places like Los Angeles County (1,614,188 votes or 69.3 percent), Kings County, N.Y., also known as Brookyln (503,291 votes or 81.4 percent), and in Cook County, Ill., home of Chicago (where vote-counting continues but so far the Obama vote totals upwards of 1,439,123 votes or 74 percent), he was able to pull off an impressive win. Though the final tally is still being tweaked as votes around the country continue coming in, his re-elect margin of 2.5 percent appears to be greater than that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

What are we to conclude from these random sets of vote returns?

Something we already knew. The United States is politically divided, in some places bitterly so. Most voters in rural Oklahoma have thoughts about Obamacare that are probably not at all shared by most voters Los Angeles or Baltimore. That’s not inconsequential: Strongly held disagreements over large questions like health care, taxes, defense spending, and the role of government, put strains on the president and his ability to get things done. A leader facing the disapproval of almost half the country will have a harder time exerting his authority and arriving at solutions to big problems.

But the 2012 Election Day exit polls show there is more support for the President and his policies than it appeared just a few months ago. A majority — 54 percent — expressed approval of the way he is handling his job. Fifty-three percent said they have a favorable opinion of him. Fifty-seven percent said they trust him to handle an international crisis. And of the two-thirds of voters who said they “strongly favor” their candidate, 54 percent said their candidate was President Obama.

As for the most urgent problem facing the president — how to deal with tax and spending questions that will determine if the country goes off the “fiscal cliff” — a combined total of 60 percent said they favor either raising income tax rates on everyone (13 percent), or on those earning over $250,000 (47 percent), the approach the president campaigned on.

This suggests that on this fundamental question — one that will be fiercely debated in Washington in the coming weeks, and a piece of the main “unknown” the financial markets are seriously worried about — President Obama has some leverage. That, coupled with the fact he just won re-election with almost 61 million votes.

Republicans, House Republicans in particular, will argue against him, and they will remind us, as they already are, that he won fewer votes than he did in 2008.

My NewsHour colleague Geoffrey Lou Guray calculated there were a total of just under 39 million votes cast for the winning 200-plus GOP House members (as per The Associated Press). In other words, they won around 20 million fewer votes than did the president. My guess is that’s not likely to come up during budget and tax negotiations; it probably wouldn’t be the most effective bargaining tool. Remember when the president reminded Republicans early in his first term that elections have consequences?

Rather than vote tallies, perhaps the most useful advantage he’ll bring to the table is experience. That came through in his speech to a cheering throng on election night, when he suggested there are things he’ll do differently this time around:

“…whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you. And you’ve made me a better president. With your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do, and the future that lies ahead.”

I interviewed Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna Insurance, about the “fiscal cliff” on the NewsHour Thursday, and when I asked him if the president has a stronger hand in the debate now that he’s been re-elected, he answered: “I think he has a mandate to lead. And if he uses that leadership well, I think he can get this done.”

For the good of the country — for those who voted for Mr. Obama and those who didn’t — let’s hope so.

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