The Obama Watch

Obama’s Brilliant Victory

Whatever else he may be, he does play to win.

By 11.12.12

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Without doubt, Barack Obama has pulled off a brilliant victory and even those who dislike him cannot fail to acknowledge it. True, it wasn't a landslide: in fact, he is the first president to be re-elected with a reduced majority (52.9% and 9.5 million votes more than John McCain in 2008; 50.3% and 3 million more votes than Romney today). But a clear -- indeed, given the facts, a stunning -- Obama victory it remains. 

In 2008, Obama had called George W. Bush "unpatriotic" for harvesting a $4 trillion federal deficit in 8 years. What word, then, to apply to a president who has inflated it by nearly $6 trillion in half the time? Add to that some grim facts:

  • The national debt now exceeds the entire annual output of the U.S. economy. 
  • Unemployment is higher today (7.9%) than when he took office (7.8%), remaining on his watch at over 8% for a post-war record of 43 consecutive months and even today above a 7% threshold with which no post-war president -- until this election-- had ever achieved re-election.
  • An unpopular signature legislative package: Obamacare, opposed as recently as June by 56% of Americans.
  • High gas prices, higher on average than under George W. Bush and more than double since Obama took office.
  • An unprecedented U.S. credit rating downgrade by Standard & Poor's and Egan-Jones from AAA to AA+ (August 2011) and by Egan-Jones to AA (April 2012) and to AA- (September 2012).
  • An American public which believes 52% to 46% that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Why was a record of economic blight and general discontent insufficient to unseat Obama? 

Obama ran a highly negative campaign, correctly deducing that he could maintain his coalition of constituencies even as he alienated nearly half the country with his resort to class warfare. In this he was aided by Romney's tactical mistakes and an Obama-compliant media.

Romney, depicted relentlessly by the Obama campaign as an out-of-touch, stone-hearted, job-exporting Bourbon and robber baron (who has actually given vast sums to charitable causes, including the fortune he inherited), made the tactical error of doing little to counter the fusillade of character assassination during the vital May-July period. He dealt with confidence-eroding allegations about his time at Bain Capital in a dilatory fashion. Achieving a stellar first presidential debate performance, he failed to press his advantage in the two subsequent debates.

Obama also calculated extremely well how to leverage the American demographic shift of recent years. He was able to keep the constituencies he attracted in 2008 with promises and hand-outs. Offensive utterances on rape by Republicans Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin eroded the female vote for Romney. And, perhaps most importantly, Romney faltered not only tactically but strategically when it came to the fast growing Latino vote. 

Romney failed to endorse existing Republican proposals -- Rick Perry's or Marco Rubio's version of the Dream Act, permitting foreign-born children of illegal immigrants to achieve rights and legality -- which could have commanded greater Latino support, not least in the swing-states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio. Instead, Obama swept the Latino vote in these states by 74%, 60%, 80% and 82% respectively. This meant that Romney won only 27% of the Latino vote -- a drop from John McCain's lamentable figure of 31% in 2008 and miles short from George W. Bush's 44% in 2004.

Then there are the intangibles. American publics like to re-elect their presidents. Nine incumbents in the last century who sought a fresh term -- Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- got one. Only five did not: William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. All but Taft lost largely because of economic woes on their respective watches. 

Obama avoided this fate by plausibly passing off the chronic sluggishness of the economy to George W. Bush, while taking credit for the auto bailout (unlike other stimulus measures, largely popular, according to the Pew Research Center) that was actually initiated by Bush and which in fact may have done little short-term good and much long-term harm. Obama also adroitly postponed implementation until 2013 of his most painful and costly measures, like Obamacare and the termination of the revenue-producing Bush tax cuts. This permitted both measures to appear at once positive and abstract -- a cause for debate perhaps, but scarcely for resentment on account of hardship.

Obama will undoubtedly see re-election as a mandate to implement his program. But if the people's vote is the criterion, then the picture is ambiguous: as the Chicago Tribune, which endorsed Obama in 2008 and again this year, observes, "The same voters who gave Obama four more years in office also elected a divided Congress, sticking with the dynamic that has made it so hard for the president to advance his agenda. Democrats retained control of the Senate; Republicans kept their House majority."

But expect Obama to persist on his own track, whatever the calls for bipartisanship. Obama entered the scene in 2008 with talk of hope and change, "change you can believe in." Many conservatives thought this vacuous, but they were mistaken. Obama meant what he said. It would be highly unusual if he differed from most presidents in aspiring to two, game-changing terms.

Obama said in 2010 that "I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." But now he has secured his second term and, in retrospect, few -- perhaps only actor Matt Damon -- thought one term "with balls" was preferable. Obama seems to have reasoned with a subtlety and patience that eluded Mr. Damon that two terms were preferable, indeed vital: better to lay the groundwork in his first and follow through in his second with all that is sweeping and expensive when he is beyond electoral recall.

For all this, Obama's record made his re-election a tall order. His campaign seems to have exhibited genius in getting his supporters to vote where it mattered most. And his triumph is even greater when one recalls the slump from his Pied Piper popularity in 2008, one that even this election confirmed: in 2008, Obama won 69,456,897 votes to McCain's 59,934,81. This time, in a country that has grown by about eight million people since Obama assumed office, he won eight million fewer votes: only 61,112,143 to Romney's 58,122,514. 

Obama managed to dramatically minimize -- and Republicans failed to capitalize on -- his failures and the lack of enthusiasm they engendered. Republicans made tactical and strategic mistakes and failed to convert lack of enthusiasm for Obama into enthusiasm for their own candidate, something which should have been there for the taking. All in all, a brilliant victory for Obama.

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.