The people have spoken. By a narrow margin they have elected Barack Obama to a second term, even though a majority thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction. Even though President Obama brought no great vision to the campaign and even though he did not and was not able to run on his record. It is a puzzle.
In the end, Obama was able to convince voters that though they were not in favor of Obamacare – his signature legislation – and though they did not think he was the best man to move the economy forward, he deserved a second chance. At the end, they believed that he had inherited, as he long claimed, a tough situation that was slowly and painfully getting better. They did not buy the GOP narrative that Obama had caused the economic recovery to stall through his anti-business measures or that someone else could produce faster growth.
He also managed to sour Americans on Mitt Romney, a man of considerable accomplishments, by attacking him personally early on, before voters had gotten to know him. Monday morning quarterbacks will be aggressively picking apart the Romney campaign; his lack of response to the well-funded onslaught last spring will doubtless be raised as a major miss. Romney could probably not imagine that fair-minded American people would not view his success at Bain Capital a reasonable credential for managing our economy. He doubtless thought that they would see governing a blue state as proof he had managed to work with Democrats and that turning around the Olympics meant his success in the private sector had public management applications.
The Obama team also inspired fear in women across the country, suggesting that the first order of business for the Romney-Ryan administration would be to overturn Roe vs. Wade. It is an absurd theme – the economy was and is the over-arching concern of this ticket. However, this is a serious and ongoing problem for Republicans. There is no question that to win the primaries, the GOP candidate has to tack right on social concerns, and reproductive rights emerge as an inflammatory issue. Mitch Daniels had it right – social issues like abortion and gay marriage should have been put aside during this campaign, so dire are our fiscal problems.
Finally, Mr. Obama was able to leverage the power of the incumbency. When he needed to rev up flagging Hispanic spirits, he issued an executive order allowing a one-year reprieve on deportations under certain circumstances – a mini-Dream Act. The media covered long lines of hopeful young people taking advantage of the offer. When he needed to generate another segment’s enthusiasm, he endorsed gay marriage. The power of the platform is one reason it is so rare to turn out an incumbent.
Ultimately, Obama’s highly touted “ground game” prevailed – he got out the vote. Despite all the evidence of an “enthusiasm” gap, the network of boosters that propelled Obama into office in 2008 persisted. Union workers were essential; despite their differences over the veto of the Keystone Pipeline or public school reform, they did their job.
After a divisive campaign, in which the American people were chopped up as so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, it will be a challenge for the president to bring the country together again. He certainly has no great mandate to pursue his policies; his slight advantage in the popular vote is not a ringing endorsement for his leadership. And yet lead he must; our problems are serious and Americans are fed up with a do-nothing partisan government. They appear to blame the GOP, but four more years of inaction and failure by the White House to work across the aisle, as Obama had promised to do, will surely not be tolerated. Even fellow Democrats – even Tea Partiers – must sense the urgency of filling in those lines in the sand, and moving forward to do the people’s business.
Like an ingénue asked to play a starring role, Obama will have to immediately navigate the choppy seas of the expiring Bush tax cuts and the sequestration – the “fiscal cliff” that could throw the country back into recession. This is a daunting negotiation, with Republicans determined to block tax hikes and Obama equally steadfast in his push for higher taxes on the wealthy. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, sent congratulations to the president and promised to work together, to the extent that Obama “wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government.”
There is no indication that President Obama wants to move to the political center, or even knows where it lies. After receiving a thorough drubbing in the midterm elections of 2010 most analysts expected some migration to the middle, but none took place. Obama is considered an ideologue by those on the right. He has given them no reason to think otherwise.
President Obama will have his plate full in the next four years. Hispanics will demand immigration reform. Environmentalists will require cap and trade. Social progressives will want to see even more forceful endorsement of gay marriage. Meanwhile, the less pleasant parts of Obamacare will start streaming in – higher taxes and penalties. At some point interest rates will have to start increasing or the dollar will collapse.
Europe is slowly but surely sorting through its debt crisis; the Greek drama and associated Euro problems have given us a temporary reprieve from the costs of our fiscal profligacy but this will not persist. The debt ceiling must again be raised. The full blunt force of Dodd-Frank will take hold. The new Chinese leadership will want to flex their muscles. Iran will move closer to a nuclear weapon and Afghanistan is likely to unravel as we withdraw.
Considering the challenges, President Obama may well want to sleep in this morning.