Obama gets more time
It was not a victory on the scale of 2008, but just as hard-fought, and costlier, just as crucial to the direction of the US, and as telling about the mood of the divided country. With 94 per cent of votes in, a vindicated President Obama had yesterday secured 58 million of the popular votes – down from 69 million in 2008 – to Mitt Romney’s 56 million, but a comfortable win in the electoral college. Such are the vagaries of the US political system.
For many commentators Obama’s albeit welcome re-election has simply turned the clock on American politics back a couple of days, the status quo ante restored. The scale of the challenges domestically and internationally, the debt, the congressional gridlock, the national malaise, all once again circumscribing the possible as if nothing had changed. We can only expect more of the same inertia, they say. Particularly since the House of Representatives remains firmly Republican.
Yet elections can and do create a new dynamic. New political mandates, and the very fact of passing out of the stultifying pre-election season, can give new political legitimacy and wings to policies previously relegated to the “some day” tray.
It is hoped immigration reform, particularly the idea of a path to citizenship for illegals, may become a case in point, not least because Obama owes the growing Hispanic community a considerable debt of honour (seven in 10 voted for him). Obama, unable to run again because of term limits, has nothing to lose – we must hope he will be brave.
Obama has also insisted optimistically in recent days, perhaps with justice, that congressional Republicans have to and will respond to his new mandate with a new flexibility ahead of the fiscal cliff the country faces in December. The balance of political advantage in forcing the country down the road of massive automatic fiscal adjustments is no longer there for Republicans . They will certainly now be blamed and punished for the resulting pain and chaos.
That dilemma for the Republicans goes to the heart of the hard questions this election asks of the party about its own future. Its candidate inevitably became a personification of the irreconcilable demands of electoral success on the one hand, and ideological puritanism in the rank and file on the other.
Mitt Romney was held hostage by conservative activists still wedded to a narrative of another age, an anglo, white, and insular America that a majority of voters could not recognise. His extraordinary success against Obama was only possible by posing as all things to all men. Now the party must learn to reconcile itself to the new demography of America, or die – it needs, as one commentator put it, a “Bill Clinton moment” to restore its electability as the former president did to the Democratic Party. But there are no obvious Clintons in the fold.