A subtle message about things to come may have been planted in the victory speech. The re-elected President, having proved that he can win by brawling and not just by floating on gossamer dreams, announced a new era of mature discipline — starting at home. Four years ago, Barack Obama delivered hope and change to his daughters in the lovable form of a brand-new puppy. This time around, all they got was a pat on the head. “Sasha and Malia,” he said before an adoring — and relieved — crowd in Chicago, “I’m so proud of you guys. But I will say that for now, one dog’s probably enough.”
It was a fitting end to a one-dog’s-enough sort of campaign. For months, even years, the President and the challenger postured, attacked, dodged and debated. They and their supporters begged and spent crazy money — not millions, billions — yet somehow, fairly or unfairly, both candidates wound up looking a bit undersized. Obama once stirred multitudes in a football stadium against a backdrop of Greek pillars. Now he is mortal again, having earned roughly 9 million fewer votes than he won in 2008. A very crafty, very skilled mortal, politically speaking: Obama figured out how to leverage a thumping victory from relative weakness.
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Republican Mitt Romney, who once saved the Olympics in Salt Lake City and traded companies the way children trade Pokémon cards, worked for five years and leveraged nothing. By clawing back the GOP bastions of Indiana and North Carolina, he managed to cut Obama’s electoral-vote margin by 26 from the last time out, yet he lost one battleground after another, his campaign exhausted on such molehills as who should pay for Big Bird.
Obama became the first re-elected President in more than a century whose share of the vote was smaller his second time around. With a sluggish economy tugging at him like an anchor and a single-minded opposition dedicated to drowning him, the President set his sights on mere survival and welcomed it as his vindication. After all, in these harrowing times of stalled economies and cultural upheaval, survival is the new winning. Today’s answer to “How are you doing?” is “Compared with what?” One dog, in other words, is enough.
Once billed as a decisive moment in American history, the long and sour election wound up settling very little. Leadership in Washington remained unchanged: Obama in the White House, Democrat Harry Reid in the Senate, Republican John Boehner in the House. Some $6 billion of campaign spending delivered another near tie to what has become a 50-50 America. In fact, the election results undercut one of the few points of political agreement among Americans in recent years. Most people believe that Washington is broken, or so they tell pollsters. Some blame the President and his fellow Democrats, with their vigorous agenda of deficit spending, health care for all and a green industrial policy. Some blame the nay-saying Republicans, who have resisted Obama each step of the way and were rewarded with a midterm surge in 2010. But nearly every survey found a deep desire among the public for something different from the federal government.
Come Election Day, those wishes effectively canceled each other out. Nearly 120 million voters cast their ballots, and the net effect was no change at all. America went shopping for a new car and returned home with the same coughing jalopy. You have to dig deeply into the balloting to find anyone voted off the Washington island. A paltry handful of seats switched in the House of Representatives — including, if a recount holds, the voluble Tea Party hero Allen West in Florida — while Republicans kicked away another chance to take control of the Senate by nominating extreme candidates who used their soapboxes, in a few decisive cases, to air their peculiar views on the theology and biology of sexual assault.
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As the saying goes in Silicon Valley, this result was not a bug in the software; it was a feature of it — the unsurprising result of carefully hatched plans in Chicago and Boston. Both sides put their fingers in the political winds many months ago, decided that the public would split evenly and built their strategies around that certainty. Expecting a close election, they focused their energies on stirring up their core supporters while stinting on vision and stoking fear. They flooded the ether with negative ads and steered clear of fresh ideas as if they were cow pies. So instead of a campaign about the future of the country, it was, by mutual agreement of the political-consulting industry, a campaign about turnout in a relative handful of battleground counties.
Ultimately, Obama was buoyed by a segment of the electorate he was never supposed to win: the forgotten white men he once dismissed as “bitter” and clinging “to guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them.” This Rust Belt lunch-bucket brigade went for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and for Ronald Reagan a generation before that. Obama retained just enough of them in his coalition of liberals, young people, working women, African Americans and Latinos. The result was a string of wins in the industrial Midwest that slammed the door on any possible Romney strategy. For many months these voters had been fed a steady diet of well-tailored messages that boiled down to this: sharp guys wearing soft suits and perfect haircuts have been shutting your factories and offshoring your jobs for decades, and now get a load of Mitt Romney. The fact that Romney had opposed Obama’s bailout of General Motors and Chrysler — giants of an industry that employs, directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands of workers in Ohio and nearby states — more than sealed the deal. Between Romney’s position on the government rescue of Detroit and his party’s bristling line on Latino immigration, Obama had what he needed to build his fire walls.
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The survivor took the stage well after midnight, having waited more than 90 minutes for the concession call from a stunned Romney headquarters. Four years earlier, at Grant Park in Chicago, the young Illinois Senator described his decisive win as a mandate for change — only to find that victory speeches expire in Washington quicker than the warranty on a bootleg wristwatch. Each bold step President Obama took toward his sweeping agenda brought him a little deeper into the mud, until he was swamped in the wake of the Tea Party speedboat. Four years later, the struggle was visible in each gray hair on his head.
“I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly,” Obama said. But politics “is important,” not least in a campaign like this one. “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated,” he continued. “We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy … These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”
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Two Spent Forces
Obama made no promises of bold new programs. Instead he pledged to work on cutting the deficit, overhauling the tax code and bridging the divide on immigration. Any trouble he has in claiming a larger mandate for a second term is in part because he never really sought one. It’s easy to forget that 2012 was a new experience for him, the first time Obama faced a vigorous re-election challenge — for any office. His political career until now had almost always been a one-way escalator gliding up, up, up. His swoon in the polls a month before the voting was his first encounter with the law of gravity, and he got quite close to earth before his chute opened.
If his first presidential campaign could be distilled into a single moment, it might be the day in July 2008 when he visited U.S. troops in Kuwait. The upstart rookie found himself in a gymnasium. Someone handed him a basketball. Obama was wearing a microphone and street shoes. He had not warmed up. He had no business taking a shot with cameras rolling, because the moment screamed metaphor. Undaunted, he bounced the ball, spun it between his fingers — then launched a three-pointer that carved a rainbow on its way to the pot of gold. His 53% share of the popular vote four months later was the largest any Democrat had won in more than 40 years.
This time around, Obama’s game plan involved trading elbows beneath the basket. With the public down on his signature first-term achievement — the mammoth enterprise known as Obamacare — he and his allies decided to go negative early, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a summertime ad blitz targeted at swing-state voters. The idea was to paint Romney in lurid colors as Scrooge McDuck minus the spats, a Bain plutocrat who swam in gold coins that he looted from once proud companies before firing their hardworking employees. The ads pounded Romney over his tax returns, teased him about his wife’s show horse and blamed him for the death of a woman whose husband once worked (but no longer did) at a company that Romney once controlled (but no longer did).
It was a page ripped from the GOP’s soiled 2004 playbook. In that year, President George W. Bush overcame his weakness in the polls by savaging his challenger, John Kerry of Massachusetts. Romney fought back with tactics similar to Obama’s, though various spending rules meant that his negative barrage started later. By the final days of campaigning, according to one analysis, nearly 90% of campaign ads in the battleground states were negative. No one was wasting money on “Morning in America” uplift. It’s not morning; many Americans are worried that it’s twilight. The irony, in such a blood-red campaign, was that the men at the top were so bloodless: the number-crunching Romney vs. the aloof and analytical Obama.
The incumbent opened a lead in September, after the party conventions. Former President Bill Clinton, his reputation burnished by the passage of time and the experience of his successors, gave a bravura defense of his wife’s onetime rival. It was perhaps the first speech of the campaign with any resonance, and the last. But then Obama and Romney made their first side-by-side appearance in a debate at the University of Denver on Oct. 3. Romney did not look nearly as frightening as the President’s ads suggested. Obama, however, with his low-energy performance, appeared to be every bit the spent force that Romney’s negative script depicted. By a Gallup Poll–record 52-point margin, the viewing public crowned Romney the winner.
It turned out that Obama, in a burst of overconfidence, had canceled many of his prep sessions and somehow got it into his head that he didn’t need to engage the earnest Romney while millions watched. The biggest surprise of the night, one Democratic partisan said — this is called putting some lipstick on the pig — was not that Obama failed to hide who he was but that Romney did such a fine job of pretending to be something he wasn’t. That judgment helped explain why the post-Denver polls showed a whole new race, one suddenly too close to call. By some measures, the contest entered the final 10 days with public opinion almost exactly where it was in midsummer, an amazing thing when you think of it: all that heat and noise, and nothing happens. The country’s one clear voice in the last hours of the election was an unlikely YouTube sensation, Colorado 4-year-old Abigael Evans, who sobbed pathetically and moaned, “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney.”
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And then the ancient forecast of an October surprise came true, right on schedule, like Halley’s Comet arriving from deep space. The campaigns fretted internally and boasted in public until a storm named Sandy doused the lights and distracted the country.
If a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, then a nation in full campaign mode sees every hurricane as a political football. Having learned well the lessons of Katrina, Obama tore up his travel schedule — Air Force One made a virtual U-turn in Florida — to keep watch from the White House as Sandy shoved a wall of water into New Jersey and New York. The storm diverted attention in the New York–based media and left Romney with little to do but bag relief donations and keep his lip zipped. In Boston, Romney staffers seethed as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the keynote speaker at the GOP convention, praised Obama’s quick response and toured the ruins with the President by his side. According to some exit polls, voters likewise approved of Obama’s storm performance, giving him the boost he needed to seal his win. Sandy “broke Romney’s momentum,” in the words of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, a GOP guru and veteran of the Katrina cleanup.
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Obama’s re-election and the continued split in Congress confirmed a reality that has been forming for a generation: no matter how passionately the true believers in each party make their case, no matter what new technologies arrive to amplify their voices, no matter how high the alps of campaign cash lavished on data mining, hypertargeted ads and voter mobilization become, Americans refuse to give a governing mandate to one side or the other. True, Republicans got control of the government in the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, and the Democrats had their turn when Obama swept into office. Some big things got done, first under the Republicans (tax cuts, a Medicare expansion, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and then under the Democrats (restructuring of the health care and automotive industries, new banking regulations, a jump-start for green energy). But each time, voters yanked on the choke chain.
The U.S. is — for the moment, at least — a two-party system with no-party rule. Seven presidential elections have now gone by without a popular-vote landslide of 55% or more. That hasn’t happened since the late 19th century. Political scientists keep writing books saying a robust majority is on its way, to be gathered by one party or the other. Once again, though, the emerging majority failed to emerge. We’re still waiting.
Will the Fever Be Unbroken?
What comes next for the party warriors depends very much on tribal rituals that began the moment the election results were clear. As the losers, the Republicans now assign blame. As the winners, Democrats wrestle for credit.
Start with the blame game and the easiest gambit of all, which is to blame the candidate. No time was wasted in skewering Romney. “What we got was a weak moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party,” groused Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots. “The presidential loss is unequivocally on them.” Without a doubt, the former Massachusetts governor made an easy target. While he certainly looked the part of a President, his jaw strong and temples snowy, Romney was perhaps a candidate better seen than heard. He knew what the Obama camp intended to do with its negative ads, yet he seemed determined to help them do it.
“I like being able to fire people,” Romney said at one point. Another time, he said his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” He was Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod’s unpaid wordsmith, keeping the re-election campaign stocked with zingers — the most lethal of which undoubtedly was from his speech to a group of high rollers on the topic of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax. The “47%,” as he called this near majority, believe they are “victims” and constitute a drag on society. If author Ayn Rand were still alive, Romney might have fluttered her heart with this taxonomy. But the remark surely hurt him with the millions of retirees, troops, students and low-paid workers who rightly feel like contributing citizens. And who, through the many taxes other than income tax that they pay, may kick in a higher percentage of their income than Romney paid of his.
The question for Republicans is whether they’ll go deeper into the blame game than simply scapegoating their nominee. If they are honest with themselves, they will recognize that the party made Romney’s job more rather than less difficult. Beginning with the almost comical anybody-but-Romney spectacle of the GOP primaries, where a parade of has-beens, not-yets and never-weres competed to flank Romney on the right, the party coaxed and prodded its candidate into damaging positions on immigration, abortion, gay rights and more. It wasn’t enough for Romney to stand on a broadly appealing platform of fiscal responsibility and free enterprise. He was expected to somehow compete for Latino votes while denying undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, even members of the military. He was supposed to vie for women’s votes while down-ballot Republicans parsed the meaning of rape. The Tea Party movement can be credited with electrifying a body that flatlined after 2008, but what rose from the slab this year was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, a toxic patchwork of once buried ideas.
A party interested in winning future presidential elections would ask itself why candidates who might have been more adept campaigners than Romney chose to stay on the sidelines this year. Perhaps talents like Christie and Hoosier Mitch Daniels looked at the fates of Utah’s Bob Bennett and Indiana’s Richard Lugar — two longtime Senators whose careers were garroted during Tea Party–led purges — and decided to wait until after the GOP’s deeply conservative fever breaks. And why did Romney’s poll numbers jump only after the Denver debate, in which he reassured voters that he would be a moderate, open-minded President? There was a message for the right wing in that surge. As strategist Karl Rove put it on Fox News, “If we are going to win in the future, Republicans need to do better among Latinos, and they need to do better among women — particularly single women.” But with no President Romney to remind them of it, the lesson is likely to be ignored.
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Should Republicans point fingers at Romney without also pointing a few at the mirror, they will likely emerge from defeat convinced that the path to victory lies even further to the right. They will go deeper into the quagmire of the culture wars. They will double down on anti-immigrant rhetoric that helped turn California from the land of Reagan into an automatic 55 electoral votes for the Democrats. The failure to beat a hobbled incumbent should remind the GOP that politics is a game of addition, not exclusion. But there are powerful interests in the party — from evangelical preachers to talk-show hotheads to leaders of right-wing pressure groups — who are more interested in ideological orthodoxy than winning elections. History suggests that the dominance of these forces won’t last forever. The natural ebb and flow of the two-party system tends to pull ever so gradually toward the center. But their reign isn’t over yet. Someone will have to depose them, and what brave soul is up for that job?
Lessons for Democrats
On the other side of the thin membrane separating winners from losers, Obama’s Democrats are scrambling to claim more credit than the raw numbers would seem to support. Even before the last votes were tallied, as it became clear that Romney’s efforts to tip the scales in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa had failed, party leaders began spinning the win as a renewal of Obama’s power. “He’s holding a lot of cards coming off a win,” John Podesta, who led the President’s transition team four years ago, told the New York Times. “He can create a certain set of demands on Republicans that they’re going to have to deal with.” This is bold talk in a town where votes are power, and Obama officially has millions fewer than he had before. He lost the House two years ago and stands now on a narrow ledge in the Senate. The returns document his sagging popularity across the electorate. Comparing CNN exit polls from 2008 and 2012, Obama lost 4 points among men and a point among women, 6 points among voters under 30, 7 points among independents and 2 points among college graduates.
Should the Democrats examine their poorer showing, they will recognize that the chief lesson of the past four years is that they took their eye off the ball. When the economy is in trouble, all other issues are better off sidelined. But instead of devoting himself exclusively to bringing back housing or forcing banks to lubricate a credit market that had seized up (and still remains cranky), the President and his party used dubious legislative mechanisms to force a health care reform bill through Congress on a party-line vote. Voters liked some of the provisions, like coverage for pre-existing conditions and the guarantee that young Americans can remain on their parents’ insurance up to age 26. But the sheer complexity of the law and the hard-to-swallow claim that the vast program will actually save money led millions of voters to sour on Obamacare. What’s more, the urgency with which the Democrats scrambled to pass the sweeping law fed the right’s persistent suspicion that the President’s party seeks to build a European-style welfare state.
Obama is unlikely to make the same mistake again. The signature accomplishment of his second term, if he can pull it off, will be not an expansion of entitlements but a reduction of them. Without reform, the brutal arithmetic of an aging population will eventually break the bank. He will sooner or later reach for the Grand Compromise that has eluded Washington for nearly 30 years: trading lower taxes on businesses and individuals for closing billions in loopholes and other tax-code giveaways that make virtually everyone in the U.S. — from corporations to small businesses to college students — welfare queens of one kind or another. Obama’s vision, to the limited extent that he has shared it with the public, is even grander than that. He thinks he can wrap the long overdue reform of the tax code into structural changes to Social Security and health care entitlements in a way that cuts the deficit, lowers the tax burden, reduces the debt and sparks economic growth. In theory, Republicans are for this, as it cuts spending on people who aren’t Republicans. Democrats should like it because it reduces the pork that businesses get from Washington through backdoor giveaways in the tax code. Everyone has to give a little to save the Republic.
That kind of — brace yourselves for a Washington dirty word — compromise could take both parties months to embrace, and they may not get there in the two years or so before second-term Obama starts into the falling glide path of a lame duck. It is far from clear that men like Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have the vision, temperament or muscle memory to get behind a commonsense deal. For that matter, they may not have the power inside a party purged of moderates. Democrats, meanwhile, are largely shorn of their own moderate fringe, and they did not give Obama an unchallenged cakewalk to renomination in order to have him make cuts in the entitlement programs that are the party’s defining legacy.
Will Obama’s re-election “clear away a lot of the ideological underbrush” in Washington, as the President predicted in the days before the election? The question may start generating answers quickly. The government is racing toward the so-called fiscal cliff, when an assortment of tax and spending issues deferred by both parties until after the campaign will demand action all at once. That’s the first place to look for signs of a new dawn in Washington.
Obama goes into those talks with a stronger hand to play than his Election Day numbers might suggest. His principal campaign promise, a return to Clinton-era tax rates on top earners, is poised to drop effortlessly into his lap on Jan. 1, when the current lower rates expire. If the GOP decides to negotiate on taxes — a big if — that might be the moment. Other automatic triggers are set to enact unprecedented cuts in Pentagon spending, which will be more popular among Democrats than Republicans. In other words, a plunge from the cliff — which many economists say is a recipe for a new recession — will cause enough pain to Republicans that the GOP may decide to deal after four years of disciplined resistance.
But it’s more likely that both sides will find a way to kick the can (or most of it) down the road again. After all, little in the election results suggests that the public voted for a different approach. Who knows? The parties may find it easier to make a grand deal on taxes and spending after taking a tumble from the cliff. Much of the pain would already have been incurred at that point, and reforms could be sold as salve, not castor oil.
An Infinity of Deficits
There were trends, perhaps, in the down-ballot initiatives. Voters endorsed same-sex-marriage rights in three states: Maryland, Maine and Washington. Marijuana was legalized in Colorado.
But a deliberately small and vague campaign came to an end without clarifying America’s largest and most vivid challenges.
Unemployment remains high, particularly among the minorities and young people who were decisive for Obama on Election Day. Educational attainment, compared with other nations, is lagging at a time when global competition demands a sharper workforce. In fact, the percentage of Americans participating in the labor force is shrinking while enrollment in disability and retirement programs is growing. In other words, a larger safety net is being held up by a smaller number of workers. At the state level, that plays out in the form of a more than $1 trillion shortfall in promised pensions, which is forcing cities from coast to coast into default. At the federal level, the imbalance between workers and pensioners is revealed in an infinity of budget deficits for which neither party has a solution.
An improving economy would certainly help with these problems. After more than four years of the worst numbers since the Great Depression, there have been a few hopeful glimmers: steady (though weak) job creation, slow (but measurable) growth. The housing market is a bit stronger. The percentage of Americans who say the nation’s on the wrong track is lower than it has been in years. How long this tepid recovery will last, though, is guesswork. Economists say a follow-on recession is a possibility as long as Europe staggers on the edge of fiscal unraveling and China’s once explosive double-digit annual growth cools to mid–single digits. Overseas, the Middle East seethes on. The U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan like a fist from a bucket of water — hardly leaving a trace. Next door, Iran draws closer to a nuke. Next door, Syria is burning. The leading powers of Asia — China and Japan — are at loggerheads over control of resources and bragging rights in the South China Sea.
The question always comes up after a presidential campaign, but especially in tough times: Who would want this job? And so it is worth remembering, always, that credit goes to the men and women who are willing to put themselves on the line, because it is often unpleasant and never easy but always vitally important. Barack Hussein Obama and Willard “Mitt” Romney stepped up to the fight this year; they campaigned doggedly (if not always well) and opened themselves to withering attacks not only on their political positions but also on their morals and good faith. This is the system we have, and it has proved durable and strong. But that doesn’t make it pretty. In the end, each gave as good as he got, and Obama squeaked through. Ordeal? Yes. Uplift? Alas, no.
— with reporting by Michael Scherer / Chicago, Alex Altman / Boston and Michael Crowley, Massimo Calabresi, Jay Newton-Small, Katy Steinmetz, Alex Rogers and Elizabeth Dias / Washington