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How, and What, Obama Won

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Mitt and Ann Romney arriving at a rally at Port Columbus International Airport in Ohio the night before the election, November 5, 2012


History’s actor, left scribbling and protesting on a Fox News set beneath a huge red, white, and blue graphic emblazoned “Barack Obama Re-Elected President,” had been replaced. Obama and his campaign, in proving that the 2008 winning coalition led by blacks, Latinos, young people, and women was no excrescence, changed history. Dick Morris draws the stark conclusion that “this signals a permanent change in the American electorate.” Morris goes on:

This is not your father’s United States. This is a United States with a permanently high turnout of blacks, Latinos, and young people.
For many, many years the Republican Party has been a group of committed conservatives who believe in limited government who live in a sea of people that don’t really see it that way. And the Republicans have survived and stayed in power because the turnout of everybody else was lower and their turnout was higher.
Well, that finally caught up with us yesterday. And if Mitt Romney, a very good candidate, running a very good campaign—some flaws but very good—couldn’t beat Obama, a dismal failure as president, in the middle of the worst recession since the Thirties, then no Republican can win in this electorate unless we make fundamental changes in the approach the Republican Party has to African-Americans, Latinos, and young people…. We can no longer skate by hoping for a reduced turnout among those groups.8

There is no way to know whether Barack Obama’s reelection really does signal the advent of a “permanently high turnout of blacks, Latinos, and young people,” which in any event is rather a caricature (leaving out, notably, educated suburbanites, and quite different electorates in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Wisconsin). Rove too thought he was building a “permanent majority” in shaping the coalition that reelected George W. Bush. He too depended on generating enormous turnout from among his party’s base—by relentlessly targeting exurban conservatives—and battering the challenger ruthlessly with negative ads.

It was a delicious post-election moment when Rove complained that Obama had won reelection only by “suppressing the vote” with these ads, for in spending tens of millions in the summer of 2012 to destroy Mitt Romney’s reputation as a competent businessman and paint him as a rapacious job-destroying plutocrat, David Axelrod was doing to Romney precisely what Rove had done to John Kerry in “swift-boating” him in the summer of 2004. Each identified early the challenger’s perceived strength—military heroism and competence with Kerry, business and economic expertise with Romney—and attacked it directly, relentlessly, ruthlessly.9 And it worked. Though after his victory in the first debate Romney saw his “positives” rise dramatically in nationwide polls, in the swing states, where the early negative advertising had been intense, they never recovered.10

On the positive side, Obama’s campaign depended on an intensely modern and innovative organizing effort that proved stunningly effective in reaching sympathetic voters and getting them to the polls. At every rally a volunteer would mount the podium to instruct the crowd to “get out your cell phones” and tens of thousands of hands would dutifully hold up their phones to text, simultaneously, “Obama” and place themselves on the vast campaign organizing lists—and thus into a tenacious network that would track and coax them, and their family and friends, and millions of others, all the way to the voting booth.11

The administration supplemented this unprecedented “ground game” with election-year “constituency servicing” that would have been instantly recognizable to Franklin Roosevelt. Using an executive order, President Obama imposed key provisions of the stalled Dream Act and postponed deportation of Latinos (71 percent of whom voted for him). He repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and spoke out in support of marriage equality, expanded student loans while reducing interest rates, made it possible for young people to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they are twenty-six, and guaranteed coverage for contraceptives and family planning—all policies popular among young voters and women (who favored him with their votes, respectively, by 60 and 55 percent).

In a bitter post-election conference call with his donors, Governor Romney denigrated these “gifts,” complaining that Democrats were just following “the old playbook” and bribing voters:

You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care…worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity—I mean, this is huge.12

The voice was that of the unforgiving plutocratic Romney who talked of “the 47 percent,” but in fact he had a point: providing health care coverage to those who didn’t have it was “huge.” “Policies don’t win elections,” runs the old political maxim, “constituencies win elections.” And from the White House Obama had done much to serve his constituencies. Whether this was bribery, as Romney would have it, or effective and responsive governance depends on your view of what the government should properly do—an issue on which the candidates dramatically differed. As Obama never tired of repeating, the election was a choice between “two visions of America.” In introducing Romney at a rally in Port St. Lucie, Florida Representative Allen West, an African-American Republican congressman who had served as an army officer in Iraq, set out those visions starkly in what he called “the race for America”:

It is a race between what is simply called the opportunity society versus the dependency society…. We’re talking about limited government. We’re talking about fiscal responsibility. We’re talking about your individual sovereignty. We’re talking about the free market….
The other side…they don’t believe in that. They believe in taking over more of our production and you see that each and every day. They believe in creating and expanding a welfare nanny state and you see that with the unemployment, you see that with the food stamps, you see that with Americans in poverty…. They believe in taking more of your rights and freedom and your liberties. They don’t believe in the free market. They believe in trickle-down government…. That’s not America!

West’s is an extreme and purified Tea Party version of the philosophy that came sweeping out of California in 1978, with the property tax limits of Proposition 13, and whose embodiment, Ronald Reagan, conquered the White House two years later, launching the current conservative era.

For West as for Governor Romney, Obama’s policies, particularly his Affordable Care Act, represent yet another step down the road to the dependency society—and another patronage machine Democrats can use to buy votes. For them, the cheering thousands at the Obama rallies, and the vast “turnout…in urban areas” on election day, came not least because these people were getting something from government—food stamps, student loans, health care, Social Security—and they wanted to assure, by their votes, that they would keep on getting it. Romney, in limiting himself, as he ruefully told donors after his defeat, to “talking about big issues for the whole country: military strategy, foreign policy, a strong economy, creating jobs and so forth,” was simply not able to compete with the array of glittering Christmas presents coming out of the White House.

Another way to say this is that President Obama, as he repeated constantly, really does believe that “America always does best when everybody gets a fair shot”—and that a majority of those who came out to vote, especially those who felt themselves excluded (and had been reminded of that by Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments), agreed with him. Though Obama had been responsible for the greatest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson, and though his speeches grew more populist as the voting approached—

I ran because the voices of the American people—your voices—had been shut out of our democracy for way too long by lobbyists and special interests and politicians…. Over the last four years, the status quo in Washington has fought us every step of the way.

—he spoke mostly not about overcoming the status quo to enact new programs but about fighting it to hold on to the gains people had made. In Columbus that last day his message was clear: it was the “status quo” that was aggressive and threatening, that proposed to take things away, and it was he, Obama, who would be “the champion” to block that from happening:

We’ve got to make sure that if the price of peace in Washington is cutting deals that are going to kick students off of financial aid, or get rid of funding for Planned Parenthood, or let insurance companies discriminate against people with preexisting conditions, or eliminate health care for millions on Medicaid who are poor or elderly or disabled, that’s not a price I’m willing to pay…. That’s surrender to the same status quo that’s hurt middle-class families for way too long….
The folks at the very top in this country, they don’t need another champion in Washington….
The laid-off worker who is having to go back and retrain at the age of 55 at a community college—she needs a champion…. The cooks and waiters and cleaning staff working overtime at a Columbus hotel, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kids to college—they need a champion.

These words bespeak a struggle that is in large part defensive, to conserve the gains of the social welfare state. And they speak to people who don’t need to be called “the 47 percent” or “the society of dependency” to know that those gains are under fierce attack.

Obama’s words, together with the vast get-out-the-vote effort engineered by the wizards in Chicago and Washington and embodied in the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers, sent enough Americans surging to the polls to overcome voter suppression efforts in Florida and Ohio and Pennsylvania and return “the champion” to the White House. With no small help from ruthless gerrymandering, those same voters also returned a Republican Congress, ensuring that the representatives “of the status quo”—those who seek to dismantle the welfare state—will hold checkmate force in Washington.

Though major Tea Party figures, including Allen West, were defeated, enough were returned that the lineaments of our politics will likely look not dramatically different after the election than before it. But whether his reelection really signals, as Dick Morris insists, a “permanent change in the American electorate,” it shows that Obama is no fluke. Republicans will have to work with him on a deal that will prune but largely protect major entitlement programs and draw more revenue from well-to-do Americans. Still, unless Obama can devise a way to attract his coalition to the polls to retake Congress in 2014, it is hard to see where he will find the huge infusion of money that he would need to set people to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools, or to hire hundreds of thousands of teachers, or to make college “more affordable for everyone,” all of which the president has pledged to do.

Obama’s second term will likely be a hard slog “forward” (as his modest, one-word campaign slogan put it): capturing new revenue while protecting major entitlements in a budget deal, passing immigration reform, and gradually, as the various parts of the Affordable Care Act take effect, providing tens of millions more Americans with health insurance. That will be, however modest and halting and imperfect, real change. The gifts Barack Obama brings as a politician, his attraction for certain constituencies, may not be replicable; but for Democrats he has shown the way, and perhaps it is not too much to say that, with his reelection and the permanent imposition of national health care that it makes possible, the great wave of the conservative revolution that swept over the country’s politics in 1980 and has dominated ever since may at last have reached its limit. Only with the next election—and those who, post-Obama, turn out to vote in it—will we see if that wave really has begun to recede, revealing not just struggles to be fought but new possibilities to be realized. That truly would be the reality-based community’s revenge.

  1. 8

    See Dick Morris, “Why I Goofed!” 

  2. 9

    As of October 21, the Obama campaign and associated groups had spent $275 million on advertisements—only 14 percent of which were positive. Romney had spent $319 million on ads, 20 percent of them positive. See “The Ads Take Aim,” The Economist, November 2, 2012. 

  3. 10

    See Charlie Cook, “Obama Can Thank Early Negative Ads for His Advantage,” National Journal, November 1, 2012. 

  4. 11

    See, for example, Jim Rutenberg, “Secret of the Obama Victory? Rerun Watchers, for One Thing,” The New York Times, November 12, 2012. 

  5. 12

    See Ashley Parker, “Romney Blames Loss on ‘Gifts’ to Minorities and Young Voters,” The New York Times, November 14, 2012. 

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