The objective of a first term president is to get re-elected – Barack Obama has achieved that. On November 7th 2012 Obama was given a mandate to lead his country for a second term comprehensively defeating Republican Mitt Romney. However, the incumbent president has no time to savour his victory – unfortunately for him that was the easy part. Unlike the euphoria of four years ago, the overriding emotion was one of relief for himself and his supporters. Now he faces the objective of a second term president which is to create a legacy. The next four years will determine how the first black president to occupy the White House is judged by history. Not much has changed as a result of this election. The power structure has remained the same: Obama occupies the Oval office with a Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republicans still hold sway in Congress. The checks on his legislative powers in his first term remain. Obama will be buoyed by victory but he leaves behind the campaign trail with its echoes of lofty oratory and his loyal base in Chicago returning to WashingtonDC and the gritty reality of politics in a divided capital.
There was a palpable fear in the Obama camp about voter turnout. Hope was the operative word on the campaign trail in 2008 but four years on they couldn’t rely solely on that to bring voters to the polling stations. The reality of the situation dictated that his team launch a monumental groundswell operation in order to galvanise a similar turnout and they succeeded. Dubbed the hash-tag election due to the prominent role played by social media, Obama has the largest Twitter following of any world leader. His team relentlessly contacted supporters and the undecided, imploring them to vote for their man.
This race was deemed too close to call. But after the ballots were cast and the pundits began deciphering the early exit polls it became clear that the 44th president had managed to win the crucial swing states that often decide these elections. The margins were tight but President Obama carried Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin. This meant that he easily won the race to 270 electoral college votes out of the 538 available. Currently he stands on 303 to Romney’s 206 with Florida’s 29 still to be allocated. Obama managed to defeat Romney in Michigan, where the challenger was born, and in Massachsetts, where he was governor from 2003 to 2007. From the 2008 election results the Democrats only lost two states: Indiana and North Carolina. In the end Obama won the popular vote by 50% to Romney’s 48% which shows that incumbent clearly won the popular vote. The president’s mandate is reduced from the last election but it is still a clear mandate.
For the Republicans this defeat illustrates major deficiencies in the Grand Old Party (GOP) as they were unable to capitalise on high unemployment and a stuttering economy since the financial meltdown of 2008. One must go back to 1936 and Roosevelt during the Great Depression to find a president who, in the face of such high unemployment figures, managed to get re-elected. The unemployment rate in America is roughly the same as when Obama took office but instead of losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month the country is now gaining them.
This was an election that a united Republican party would have won. However, the party is split and they managed to alienate large cohorts of the electorate with their divisive politics throughout the campaign. It is clear that the party is torn. Over the next two years they must decide if they are the fractious and severely conservative right-wing party that we saw in the primary or the more moderate one that Romney unveiled at the first presidential debate. Romney was hamstrung by his own party in this race – for instance the party signed a pact that said they would not raise taxes on anybody and that included the super wealthy – Romney wanted to extended the Bush tax cuts that are due to expire in January thereby avoiding the so called ‘fiscal cliff’. An exit poll indicated that 60% of voters believed that taxes should be increased on at least the very wealthy.
Romney lost the presidency in a centre right nation because he lost the centre. He had to secure the extreme elements of his party early in the campaign and by the time he changed tack in search of the middle ground he was too late. His voter base was too narrow: He had a greater proportional share of the vote amongst whites, men, the wealthy, older people, Catholics and Evangelicals. This campaign shows that the GOP needs some serious introspection and to broaden their appeal. They will not be able to compete over the coming years if they do not moderate certain policies that alienated them from large portions of the electorate. George Bush won 40% of the Latino vote whereas Romney only picked up 29%. Hispanics voted en masse for Obama. Romney and the Republican party have ostracised this large demographic through their extreme immigration policies. Pat Cadell, a public opinion pollster who worked on Jimmy Carter’s campaign team, spoke on Fox News of the party’s problems, “There is no future for a party that consistently gets wiped out at the polls by Latinos and Women and which constantly appears negative.” The first presidential debate in Detroit was the highlight of the Romney campaign as he shape-shifted toward the centre. Voters did not really know who Romney was – they were still uncertain of his true identity. What they feared was the Republican party of the last four years and that his potential administration would have reflected the GOP’s extreme agenda. American politics desperately needs a united Republican party. They need to decide their identity and emerge as the party of fiscal responsibility and moderately conservative social policies or they will find themselves left behind by the future generations of American voters.
One can only get elected once on a ‘change’ platform. The American public had a four year record on which to judge Obama so either his policies were seen as acceptable by the electorate or the opposition was not seen as offering a viable alternative – a bit of both seems to be the answer. Economically Obama inherited ‘The Great Recession’, as it was dubbed, from his predecessor and his policies have prevented a depression. The recovery is slow but there are green shoots. Voters are beginning to see improvements in the economy and perhaps the electorate was wary that a new administration could derail this progress. A Republican Congress has stymied much of Obama’s stimulus plan however the bailout of the auto-industry saved many jobs. In Ohio for example this bailout directly translated into a victory for him in this vital swing state. Exit polls suggested that nobody voted solely on foreign policy. The Republicans touted Obama as weak but he has managed to repair America’s reputation in foreign eyes without pandering or endangering American national security as was feared by his opposition. Military hawks waited for the incumbent to slip up in his first term but he has been almost flawless in foreign theatres. Al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. He tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden. He ended the unpopular war in Iraq. His sanctions on Iran have been tough and he intervened responsibly in the Arab Spring. He increased troop levels in Afghanistan but intends to pull out of that quagmire by 2014. The only real blot on his record was the loss of four American lives in Bengahzi in Libya and Romney tried to make political capital from this event during the campaign and as a result he lost popularity. If there is something the American people can be bi-partisan about it is in events where they lose their own men.
Obama’s win was an endorsement for his policies and an acknowledgment that the government has an important role to play in an American recovery. He will look to implement legislation that he was unable to get passed in his first term now that he is equipped with a new mandate from the public. His lasting legislative success came early in his first term with his sweeping health reform known as Obamacare. With his re-election he hopes to fully implement these plans by 2014. His second term priorities will be the deficit, changing the tax code, immigration and climate change. His first major obstacle will be the ‘fiscal cliff’ the metaphor for what will happen in January when George Bush’s tax schemes lapse. If a compromise is not reached between the President and Congress on fiscal policy then taxes will increase and there will be spending cuts. The speeches of both candidates after the results indicated that the need for cooperation on this issue will test their commitment to bi-partisanship.
This election does not indicate a united nation; real polarisation still exists in the States but what this vote does show is a majority electorate that saw Obama as working for them. They aren’t saying he’s succeeding but he is trying and that is more than can be said of an opposition that has been unwilling to compromise. Republican House speaker John Boehner, in a speech after the results, was clear that his Congress would remain the check on the president’s power as they have been since the mid-term elections in 2010. President Obama’s dealings with Congress over the next four years will be the key to his legacy. He urged reconciliation between the two parties in his emotive speech, “We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.” Let the partisan battles begin.