WASHINGTON — Voters never got to enjoy this presidential race as much as they endured it, a grind of a campaign during the weakest economic recovery in generations. Yet they ended up getting exactly a choice that lets them steer the country's direction – an unmistakable contrast of candidates and agendas for America.
No longer the fresh face of change, President Barack Obama sought four more years as the man who will finish what he started. Challenger Mitt Romney declared Obama a failure and said he doesn't deserve a second chance.
"You know me by now," Obama says. And the country surely does, through the health care law and the auto bailout, the ending of the Iraq war and the killing of Osama bin Laden, the slow struggle for jobs and the soaring debt.
If voters hire him again, the message is they trust him – and his economic agenda of higher taxes on the rich and spending on priorities like energy and education.
Romney represents the other way to take the country.
Steeled by one lost presidential bid and a tenacious fight for his party's nomination, Romney the corporate leader is the business model option for a fed-up nation: Lower taxes for all, less regulation, let's give another guy a chance at change.
"The question of the election comes down to this: Do you want more of the same?" Romney appealed to the undecided.
In the end, the choice was about the people, not just the plans. Obama has been president for almost four years and Romney has been running for the job for six. Voters got a gut sense of who they are, these two men of different styles, ages, races, backgrounds, ideologies and abilities to relate to the working man and woman.
At its essence, it was the economy election.
The outcome is about which candidate better sold voters on the idea that they could make their jobs and dreams more secure.
Coming out of their polling places, 60 percent of voters said the economy is the nation's top problem, according to preliminary results of exit polls.
And just a quarter of those surveyed said they were better off than four years ago. That was the precisely the political opening that Romney sought to exploit all campaign, but after a fierce fight with Obama over vision and trust and taxes, whatever advantage Romney had on the economy was narrow.
The election outcome will affect countless aspects of American life. They include the taxes people pay, the role of government in personal decisions, the appointments to the highest court in the land, the decisions on when U.S. troops get entangled overseas after more than a decade of war.
Whoever wins is expected to have to work within a divided government, under pressure to ensure that will not mean more dysfunction.
The White House contenders stood in the rain and the heat, fought over big government and Big Bird, labeled each other as liars, and paused for a mass shooting and a massive storm. In the final weary hours, they nearly lost their voices trying to be the people's voice.
Something else often got lost in this national election: It was never about the whole nation.
It was about getting 270 electoral votes.
The country was split mostly into Obama and Romney states before the race even began, and since more of them leaned toward the Democratic incumbent, the map always favored Obama. The two men battled mainly in nine states, and it often seemed they never even left Ohio, considered make-or-break for Romney.
If the campaign itself was often less than riveting, the state of play is tantalizing. For so long, the race has been fought within the polling margin of error.
Finally, time for a margin of victory.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.