Barack to the future
8 November 2012
Barack Obama and his supporters in America and abroad are understandably thrilled after winning a remarkable electoral victory. They are entitled to gloat over those of us who doubted he'd win or deserved to win.
Throughout the year, Obama seemed in danger of following Herbert Hoover in 1932, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H W Bush in 1992 as a one-term president.
He presided over skyrocketing levels of national debt and the most sluggish economic recovery since the Great Depression. Polls showed that between 60 and 70 percent of the American people believed the US was heading in the wrong direction.
But yesterday the President won far more than the 270 electoral-college votes needed to win the election. Republicans and conservatives are already blaming hurricane Sandy, which helped freeze the Romney momentum in October. Perhaps. But there are more fundamental explanations for Obama's victory.
So, how did a US President win re-election at a time of widespread anxiety and even widespread dissatisfaction across the nation?
Well, it will take time to study the exit polls in detail. But here are a few preliminary observations.
Changing demographics: Whereas Republicans predominantly represent middle-aged and older whites, Democrats are increasingly making bigger inroads among Hispanics (a rapidly rising minority) and African Americans as well as younger voters, who are consistently well to the left of their elders (abortion rights, gay marriage, less interventionist foreign policy).
Democrats did a good job of encouraging these groups to turn out to vote, and more than enough did in the all-important battleground states to swing the contest in Obama's favour.
Such trends could portend big dangers for the Republicans: as the minority populations increase (especially in Colorado, Florida and even Texas), the share of the white vote will continue to decline in future presidential elections. This is especially the case so long as Republicans continue to adopt a hardline stance on illegal immigrants from south of the border.
Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor, by temperament a moderate, always seemed uncomfortable with the conservative and Tea Party agenda. When he addressed social issues or championed entitlement reform, he seemed insincere, and people sensed it. Since the divisive primary contest a year ago, the Republican base had always been suspicious that Romney was not one of them.
To be sure, conservatives were more energetic in 2012 than 2008, just as many Republicans had predicted. But it was not nearly enough to match the enthusiasm of young predominantly Democratic voters (aged between 18 and 29) and minorities (especially Hispanics and African Americans).
Meanwhile, Obama's auto industry bailout, and Romney's equivocal response, influenced enough white, working-class voters in Michigan as well as Ohio, the battleground of battleground states, to win the rust belt. These are the so-called Reagan Democrats — or, in Australian parlance, "Howard battlers" — and they help swing national elections.
In fairness, it's a fair bet Romney's cautious and reasonable demeanour helped attract more independents in the political centre than any of the other more conservative Republican primary candidates — Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, Perry — whom he faced in a bitter primary contest earlier this year.
Indeed, the available polling evidence indicates that Romney drew even with Obama among independents. Ultimately, it did not matter, because the rank-and-file Democratic turnout remained nearly as strong as it was four years ago.
Republican brand: The spectre of George W Bush haunts the Republican Party. Despite his best efforts to distance himself from the Bush era throughout the campaign, Romney failed to convince enough crucial battleground state independents, who straddle the political centre, that today's Republicans mark a repudiation of the war party that dominated Washington during the Bush era.
The Bush reputation is tainted by two costly wars, big spending policies and the Federal Reserve's housing and mortgage mania, which led to soaring debt, budget deficit and the financial crisis. US economic growth has been lacklustre ever since, and there is little hope of a rapid return to vigorous growth.
The exit polls suggest that by a margin of 53 to 38 points, Americans are far more likely to blame Bush than Obama for today's economic ills.
To add insult to injury were a couple of divisive Republican Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, whose strident remarks on abortion and rape aggravated political centrists, especially small-l liberal women, and cost the Republicans two Senate seats.
In coming days, the twin flanks of the party's conservative base — the free-market Tea Party as well as social conservatives — will be subjected to a great deal of criticism. By adopting a doctrinally purist stance on economic and social issues, both groups alienate rising segments of middle America that is increasingly more progressive.
So what now for Barack Obama?
The history of second-term presidents is sobering. Some such as George W. Bush are early lame ducks (post-hurricane Katrina); others such as Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Iran-contra) and Bill Clinton (Monicagate) are prone to scandal. In fairness, Reagan redeemed himself, for he primarily focused on legacy (tax reform, winning the Cold War) and history records him as one of the greatest or at least most consequential presidents.
That is why Obama is unlikely to sit on his hands, even though he still faces a Republican House of Representatives. Whatever you think of the 44th President, he can hardly be accused of thinking small. His first term was all about large projects (big spending stimulus, nationalised healthcare). He will continue down the path of vastly expanding the size and scope of the federal government.
In 2008, he campaigned that he would be a "transformational" president. Translation: just as Reagan had presided over an ideological realignment in the 1980s and in the process made America a more conservative place, Obama would reshape the political landscape a generation later and move the US in a more progressive direction. Expect the re-elected President to try to complete that course.
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