But it ended at last, and if the outcome seemed to affirm the status quo, it also laid bare a political topography reshaped by changing demographics.
Just over half the country, disproportionately the young and minority, celebrated Obama's re-election, and three states became the first to approve gay marriage at the ballot box. Among those on the losing side, older and whiter as a group, some were genuinely shocked by the result, and expressed sadness in the conviction that an America that felt familiar to them was slipping away.
After nearly half a decade, rays of sunlight at last shone on the American economy. Unemployment, though still uncomfortably high, fell below 8 percent for the first time in more than three years. Housing began to rebound. Though political gridlock threatened to undermine it, recovery seemed at last at hand.
Yet the flickering revival also illuminated how much may have changed forever. Factories were hiring again, but often couldn't find workers with the needed qualifications. A college degree was the increasingly unforgiving divider between the haves and have-nots, fueling anxiety over its rising price.
One 2012 study reached the remarkable conclusion that even during the depths of the worst recession in the lifetimes of most Americans, the number of jobs available to people with a bachelor's degree never stopped increasing. And even when the economy picked up in 2012, the number of available jobs for those with only a high school diploma continued to decline. In other words, for those with a college degree, the Great Recession never happened. For those without one, it may never end.
Amid great sorrow, there was no shortage of wondrous human achievement in 2012.
Felix Baumgartner, a 42-year-old former car mechanic from Austria, rode a balloon-tugged capsule to the edge of space. Then, as millions watched breathlessly online, he opened the hatch, paused momentarily, and stepped into the void. He tumbled for nine minutes and 24 miles, breaking the sound barrier, before deploying a parachute and landing safely in the New Mexico desert.