But even if Democrats and the financial markets go along with the delay, the months before Mr. Romney’s swearing-in could be as crucial to his presidency as the transition period was for Mr. Obama four years ago, when the economic crisis led him to draft a big stimulus package while President George W. Bush still occupied the White House.
Mr. Romney’s ability to foster cooperation at the outset could determine his success on a range of issues. Yet Democrats have been dismissive, at best, about his budget plans, which have few specifics on how Mr. Romney would reduce deficits. He has mostly spoken about cutting taxes and increasing military spending.
Mr. Obama, if he loses, would still be president for the lame-duck Congress, but he would have limited leverage. If he gets another four years in the White House, he already has plans to go right back on the campaign trail to build support for his deficit-reduction framework, Democrats say, and administration officials are debating whether Mr. Obama should make some concession to Republicans to spur negotiations.
Without agreement of some kind, more than $700 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts would occur after Dec. 31, scheduled by a mix of coincidence and bipartisan agreement. How the re-elected president navigates this “fiscal cliff” could determine how much political clout and budget resources he will have.
“I think it’s the whole ballgame for the second term,” said John D. Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, who led Mr. Obama’s postelection transition planning four years ago.
Politically, Mr. Obama would have to build trust with Republican leaders who had hoped to make him a one-term president, even as he remained in campaign mode, seeking to assert his claim to a mandate to make the necessary trade-offs on spending and taxes. And the strength he shows in dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill could also set the tone for the debate on other knotty issues, like immigration and climate change.
Substantively, any agreement in Congress, which opens a week after the election, could define the terms for how Mr. Obama and lawmakers move next year on efforts to contain the long-term costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the programs that are driving forecasts of unsustainable debt. And it would determine how much money is available to address Mr. Obama’s priorities like education, energy and health care through his term.
“Absent this kind of a deal, I really don’t see what his second term does,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former House member.
To begin his fight for that deal, Mr. Obama would revive his dormant year-old deficit-reduction plan, which relies on tax increases on high incomes as well as spending cuts.
“He believes he has to play the outside game, so he’ll go all around the country and say, ‘Look, we need revenues,’ ” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Mr. Obama, advisers say, will seek to mobilize Americans behind his argument that his plan is a balanced and more economically prudent alternative than to simply allow automatic across-the-board spending cuts to take effect and all Bush-era income-tax rate cuts to expire.
He will reinforce his vow not to sign another extension of the Bush tax cuts — which expire on Dec. 31 — except for taxable income below $250,000. The Democrats hope that will force Republicans to drop their demand to continue tax cuts for high incomes, lest they get the blame for an impasse that causes taxes to go up for everyone.
“I think back in the vault is an Obama plan to put on the table,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. “He’s not going to let that opportunity on Nov. 13” — when Congress returns — “come and go without asserting some leadership.”
If Mr. Obama fails to win a broad budget compromise, Mr. Podesta said, his domestic agenda in a second term could be limited to finishing the main achievement of his first four years, his health care law. Its final stage takes effect in 2014, expanding private insurance to about 30 million uninsured Americans.
“He’s got to win a battle for a fiscal framework that gives him the ability to make the kind of investments that he’s out on the campaign trail talking about — whether that’s education, innovation, science and tech, infrastructure,” Mr. Podesta said. “He can’t go from one draining budget battle to the next.”
Because the budget impasse “has become emblematic of Washington’s dysfunction to people, I think their capacity to trust us here on a whole range of issues — on energy, immigration, education — is at risk if we don’t figure out how to come together in a bipartisan way to solve this problem,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado.
People in both parties say much would depend on Mr. Obama’s margin of victory and how Republicans would interpret a loss. “Do they take that as, ‘Well, Obama won and he really took it to us on the issues, and we lost so we need to be reasonable?’ ” said a senior House Republican aide, who did not want to be identified discussing party strategy. “Or is it an all-out blame fest — ‘Mitt Romney was a horrible candidate. We didn’t really lose. Romney lost.’ ”
At the center of Republicans’ calculations would be two leaders who have had rancorous relationships with Mr. Obama: Speaker John A. Boehner in the House and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader.
“By the time the polls have closed on election night, if it’s decided that Obama gets re-elected, both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner will be saying to each other, ‘We’re going to clean up in the 2014 midterms,’ ” said Mr. Weber, the former Republican congressman.
Typically the president’s party loses Congressional seats in midterm elections. Mr. McConnell is also up for re-election in 2014 in Kentucky. If he negotiates a tax-raising deal, it would all but ensure a Tea Party challenger in the Republican primary. More immediately, Mr. Boehner will need the support of antitax House Republicans to win another term as speaker in January.
And Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mr. Romney’s running mate, would return as House Budget Committee chairman, his conservative following there intact and his antitax instincts likely to be sharpened by the ambition he is said to have for the presidential nomination in 2016.
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