Thoughts of Gettysburg address and Lincoln as Obama took stage
ANALYSIS:Before dawn, in the euphoria of his re-election, Obama’s wish for co-operation suddenly felt possible. Surely Republicans cannot devote another four years of politick-ing to the hatred of him
President Barack Obama’s victory speech early yesterday was in a league with the orations that propelled him to the Oval Office in the first place, at the 2004 Democratic convention and in Philadelphia and Denver in 2008.
Historians may one day put it on a par with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Like Lincoln after the Union defeated the Confederacy, Obama sought to unite a divided country.
The bruising election campaign that culminated on that stage in Chicago was in a very real sense a struggle for the soul of America. “We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America,” Obama said.
Though he did not rub salt in the Republicans’ wound, the obvious implication was that the Grand Old Party – once the party of Lincoln and abolition – has grown miserly and intolerant in old age.
Harking back to his own speech in 2004, Obama asserted there were not “red states and blue states” – only the United States of America. But the country had spent the evening watching proof to the contrary, as the electoral map filled with colour-coded shapes confirming America’s divisions.
Rifts between self-reliant individualists and communitarians, between advocates of states’ rights and federalists, go back to the Founding Fathers. But in 2012 America, one feels the chasm has grown deeper. Not only do Republicans and Democrats believe and want different things, these differences are cemented by separate newspapers and television networks, even distinct dress habits and lifestyles.
At first glance, Obama’s comfortable victory would seem a vindication of Keynesian economics, of a desire on the part of a majority of Americans to embrace progressivism and compassion. His second term means “Obamacare” will survive, along with its predecessors, social security and Medicare – programmes that were also decried as “socialism” in the 1930s and 1960s.
Obama told campaign rallies that Americans don’t want the “trickle-down snake oil” that led to the economic crisis in the first place. They want affordable education and an efficient relief agency to manage disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
But Democrats may be in danger of misinterpreting Romney’s defeat as ideological inflection. Americans’ aversion to taxation and regulation by big government has not altered. Polls showed majorities placed more confidence in Romney’s business acumen than in Obama’s managerial skills.
Romney’s frequent policy changes strengthened the better-the-devil-you-know and don’t-change-horses-in-midstream reflexes that favour incumbents. Voters found Obama more likeable and thought that, unlike Romney, he cared about them.
Obama’s victory is nonetheless a rebuke to the more radical elements of the Republican Party, though whether the right understands that is another question. Republicans will doubtless level what Time magazine’s political analyst Mark Halperin labelled a “circular firing squad” at perceived culprits: Romney himself, for being too far right, or too centrist; New Jersey governor Chris Christie, for embracing Obama in the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy.
The real instigators of Romney’s defeat – apart from malleable Mitt himself – were the social and fiscal conservatives who boxed him into extreme positions during the primaries that he could never fully retreat from.