By Xenia Dormandy, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Xenia Dormandy is a senior fellow, U.S. International Role, at Chatham House in London. The views expressed are her own.
The big question in recent weeks has been whether the U.S. election would lead to continuity or change – Obama or Romney? American voters made clear yesterday that they wanted Obama (and more broadly the Democrats) to a much greater degree than most, including this writer, had anticipated.
However, the question of where continuity will take the United States, and what will have to change, still remains.
Some will argue that Obama has been given a much stronger mandate than anticipated. However, with the Republicans still in control of the House of Representatives, Obama will find himself constrained by a party that is loath to give him any policy wins.
At the same time, it remains true that around 48 percent of those who voted went for the other side. As Obama noted in his acceptance speech last night, he needs to bring in all parts of America.
“We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people,” he told the gathered crowds in Chicago last night.
So in many respects, the situation is actually not too dissimilar to where it was just 24 hours ago. And yet, there are also already some clear signs of change.
First, many Republicans were anticipating a presidential win, and certainly expected to pick up seats in Congress or perhaps even take control of the Senate. The fact that they ended up losing seats in the Senate should send a clear message that they need to reconsider their policies and position. And they should also be more willing to work with Obama, who in turn should see his negotiating position strengthened.
But it’s also worth considering that second term presidents often take a different path from that of their first term. With no presidential election ahead, incumbents can afford to antagonize both their party and traditional supporters, allowing them to take a longer term view.
Regardless, President Obama will face a number of imminent challenges in the coming year, namely continued slow economic growth and instability, Iran's nuclear ambitions, violence in Syria and the fall-out of the Arab revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the leadership transition in China. In all of these areas we can probably expect continuity from Obama.
The biggest immediate economic challenge is the so-called fiscal cliff the United States faces at the end of this year. Obama has assured the world that the U.S. will not go over it. However, this depends as much on whether the Republicans will work with him as whether he can find a path himself, and it's not yet clear whether the tough results for a number of Tea Party candidates will help or hinder these efforts.
Also of concern is America’s relationship with China. With China’s leadership transition taking place from tomorrow, there could be even greater uncertainty over Sino-U.S. ties (although the interconnectedness of the two economies means the new Chinese leadership is unlikely to significantly alter its policy of engagement).
Finally, on the Middle East, Obama might well revert to his more assertive, early policy towards Israel, particularly Israeli building in the Occupied Territories. And, despite the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to be strengthened following elections in January, Obama can be expected to do his best to restrain an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
It was interesting to note before the election that, with the exception of Pakistan (another major challenge that will likely come to a head in the next few years), all the countries polled in a survey by Pew this autumn preferred Obama over Romney. But given the make-up of Congress, the international community must be careful not to expect Obama to achieve too much on key issues including the Middle East and the environment.
Ultimately, while the U.S. system can be a messy one, in the end, collaboration rather than division are the way forward. We can only hope that some of those countries struggling with democracy today – countries that will form some of the president’s key challenges over the next four years – recognize that reality.