BARACK Obama’s 2012 election victory makes him the first president since Ronald Reagan – and the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt – to win two elections with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. To the dismay of Republicans, and despite polls indicating a close contest, Obama and the Democrats prevailed. The president won by a convincing margin and the Democrats have increased their majority in the Senate and gained additional seats in the House, although perhaps not as many as was once thought possible. The Republicans’ only success was that they did manage to retain their domination of the state governorships.
For the moment the Republicans are preoccupied with recriminations. How did this happen? They and their conservative allies were sure Obama was destined for defeat, and that this election was theirs for the taking. But a potent mix of demographics, a steadily improving economy, a clear rejection of extreme conservatism and an embrace of pragmatic progressive policies on social and economic issues, combined with GOP hubris, a superb Democratic campaign organisation, and Obama’s huge advantage over Romney in terms of likeability, propelled the president and his party to victory.
The CNN exit polls showed that the economy was uppermost in voters’ minds, with 60 per cent calling it the most important issue. Healthcare and the deficit were distant second at 17 per cent each. But while polls consistently showed Romney besting Obama on the issue of who would handle fiscal issues better, the polls on election day had more voters saying the economy is improving rather than getting worse, and 52 per cent still blaming George W. Bush for the weak economy.
Voters were offered a clear choice between main street or Wall Street, “middle out” economics or supply side economics, tax hikes for the wealthy or additional financial imposts on the middle class. In addition, rarely in a presidential election have the two candidates’ views about healthcare been so diametrically opposed. Obama and Romney differed about whether Obamacare should be implemented or repealed, about the future of Medicare and Medicaid, and about restrictions on the availability of abortion services. The cash-strapped middle class, Medicare beneficiaries, and women felt disenfranchised by the Romney proposals on entitlement programs and social policies and his commitment to growing the economy from the top down.
Ultimately Obama prevailed in this election because his key constituencies (young, minority, female) expanded in numbers and he continued to hold their support. The voters who showed up at the polls in 2012 were very different from those who have shown up in the past. They were more likely to be members of minorities and were younger and less conservative – in other words, an electorate that looks like the America of today, not yesterday. The turnout of African Americans and young voters was considerably better than sceptics predicted. Obama won in key states like Colorado because of minority support; 87 per cent of Hispanic voters in Colorado supported him. In addition, he achieved historic levels of support among Asian Americans, with 73 per cent voting for him, compared to 62 per cent in 2008.
In contrast, Mitt Romney lost the race because it was all he could do to hang onto the core party supporters, and because of his perceived inability to empathise with aspirational middle-class voters and his willingness to write off the 47 per cent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes. The GOP is now parodied as the party of angry white men. Republican primaries have become Tea Party litmus tests that threw up candidates like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and others who espouse ideas about rape, contraception and “self-deportation” that alienated the electorate. This election saw a number of winnable races for the GOP sacrificed on the altar of extremism.
In such a political environment, Obama as a pragmatic progressive looked like a much safer vote. Not everyone who voted for him necessarily subscribes to his core values and beliefs about a positive role for government in advancing national prosperity and individual opportunity. But they do recognise the important impacts on families and communities of federal government initiatives like the auto industry bailouts, federal assistance after hurricanes and tornadoes, and the decision to help some young illegal immigrants stay in the country.
In this context it is interesting to note that 25 per cent of voters at this election called themselves liberal or progressive, up from 22 per cent in 2008, while 35 per cent of voters called themselves conservatives, up one point from the 2008 level, but down seven points since 2010. And it is surprising to note that of those who called themselves conservatives, 17 per cent voted for Obama.
Of course the GOP will now try to shift ground both to accommodate these changes in the electorate and to address its election loss. In the short term that could turn out to be very divisive. The mood may well be to turn further right. As it currently stands, Donald Trump, Karl Rove, Michele Bachmann and Todd Akin are not aberrations in the Republican Party, and only a minority within the party recognises that some grand bargains forged at the centre represent the only way that Congress can move forward.
The first test already looms. Congress must deal with the “fiscal cliff” (a consequence of the provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which are due to come into effect on 1 January unless legislative action is taken on budget and deficit issues) before Christmas. It’s a test for Obama too. Can the president do in his second term what he could not do in his first – end political gridlock in Washington and guide a divided political system to legislative consensus on the nation’s most intractable problems?
In the first days after the election, the responses from Republican leaders have not been promising. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who failed in his declared task to make Obama a one-term president, was ungenerous in his post-election remarks. “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” he said. “Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office.”
House leader John Boehner, who tried and failed once before to bring the GOP to the bargaining table with the president, initially declared that he would not make it his mission in the new congressional session to repeal Obamacare. “The election changes that,” he told ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer. “It’s pretty clear that the president was re-elected,” he added. “Obamacare is the law of the land.” But almost before these remarks could be reported they were taken back, with a Boehner spokesperson saying the Speaker and House Republicans “remain committed to repealing the law.”
In his 2008 Inauguration Day speech, Obama was prescient in acknowledging that people would question the scale and scope of his ambitions for the nation. He countered this by saying, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” In 2012 the veracity of that statement remains, but now the ground has also shifted for Obama. He is now a second-term president, with the potential to be free from party politics as he considers his legacy. How will he use his second chance to show the nation and the world what he can do? •
Lesley Russell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute at the Australian National University. She was Inside Story’s Washington correspondent 2009–12.