For Obama, Survival Is the New Winning

The President figured out how to leverage a thumping victory from relative weakness.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Obama attends a campaign rally in Richmond, Va.

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.

(Election 2012Photos From the Finish Line)

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.

(PHOTOS: Last Days on the Road with Obama)

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.

PHOTOSThe Campaign in 100 Objects

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