ABC The Drum

By Nicole Hemmer

Two years ago, Barack Obama and American liberalism were on the ropes. Obama had been in office less than a year when conservatives calling themselves the Tea Party rallied against him.

Well-funded and well-organised, the Tea Party activists quickly morphed from a protest movement to a potent political force. In 2010's historic midterm election, Republicans cleaned up: 63 seats in the House, six in the Senate. Americans, it seemed, had changed their minds. The GOP claimed a mandate for obstructionism, and the federal government ground to a halt.

Which is why Barack Obama's victory yesterday was so crucial. It wasn't just the Obama legacy at stake. It was the future of liberal governance - indeed, the future of any governance - in the United States.

Since its heyday in the 1960s, American liberalism has had a rough go of it. The past three decades have seen only two Democratic presidents: Bill Clinton, a centrist who declared "The era of big government is over", and Barack Obama. Obama brought into office a commitment to the core principle of liberalism - that government has an important role to play in shaping a freer and more fair society. That belief infused his principle policy achievement, healthcare reform.

Healthcare reform was the defining legislative accomplishment of Obama's first term. It drove the Right's charge that under Obama the country had lurched to the left. Had Obama lost his bid for re-election, a skittish Democratic Party would have zoomed rightward. Liberalism would have been lost for another generation.

The achievements of Obama's first term would have quickly been undone in a Romney administration. Healthcare reform? Repealed. Banking and investment regulations? Gone. Equality for gay Americans? Shelved.

Moreover, a Romney administration would have reaped the benefits of Obama's policies. While the American economy still struggles to gain traction, there are signs that in the next few years, the recovery will begin in earnest.

The past few months have provided ample evidence: housing starts are up and unemployment is down. Economic analysts predict the American economy will add 12 million jobs in the next four years.

The truth is, Americans don't analyse the economy in nuanced ways. Leaders who preside over a bad economy generally get the blame, while those in power during boom times get the credit. So if economists are correct and the economy is destined to improve in the next few years, yesterday's results mattered immensely. Recovery under Obama would mean vindication for his policies and his philosophy. Recovery under Romney would be used to discredit liberal economics for another generation.

But Obama's win did more than keep liberalism viable. It also opened the door for a return to functional politics. Now don't get too excited. It would be rash to expect the next four years to usher in an era of bipartisan statesmanship in the United States. Chances are there's more gridlock in the offing.

Obama's re-election, however, disproved the Republican strategy of the last four years. GOP leader Mitch McConnell declared two years ago that making Obama a one-term president was "the single most important thing we want to achieve" - a questionable priority at a time when unemployment was stuck at 9.6 per cent. Yet obstruct they did, intent on thwarting all Democratic legislation. As the "Party of No", the Republicans drove the country to the brink of default, costing the US its AAA credit rating.

Soon, Americans came to expect the stalemate. So entrenched was the assumption that the GOP would never negotiate with Obama that several Romney endorsements rested on just that: Republicans refuse to work with Obama, so vote for Romney instead.

Had McConnell and the Republicans succeeded in making Obama a one-term president, their strategy of obstruction would have reaped immense rewards. Want the presidency? Just decline to work with the other party. No doubt the Democrats would have dug in their heels during a Romney administration in an attempt to replicate the Republicans' success. Washington, which has already ceased to function effectively, may well have ceased to function at all.

Obama's victory undermines that strategy. As hard as they tried, Republicans couldn't convince the American people that Barack Obama was a failed president. They may have stymied his legislation, but the political rewards were few. Obama won re-election as Democrats picked up seats in both the House and the Senate. In Obama's second term, when it comes to tough tasks like negotiating the fiscal cliff, the GOP may think twice about sticking with its "just say no" approach.

At half past midnight in Chicago, President Obama opened his victory speech with these words: "Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward." The statement was both a claim and an invitation. After several years of obstruction, the re-election of Barack Obama was the only way the nation could begin to move forward. The question now is whether the Republicans will rise to the challenge.

Nicole Hemmer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Miami.