Thoughts of Gettysburg address and Lincoln as Obama took stage

Thu, Nov 8, 2012, 00:00

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.

More likeable

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.

In 2010 and on Tuesday, Republican candidates backed by the Tea Party lost five Senate seats that, had they been contested by more moderate candidates, might have given the Republicans a majority in the upper chamber.

Obama said early yesterday that he had listened and learned in office. He specifically mentioned the need to reduce the country’s $16 trillion debt. It’s a sign he has heeded the deep-rooted fear of saddling future generations with insurmountable burdens, and leaving the country in hock to China. That fear runs across party lines.

The first big test of the ability of America’s divided government to at last address budget deficits and debt in a rational manner will come quickly. When partisan gridlock dented the US credit rating in 2011, Obama and the Republicans concocted a package of swingeing cuts so unpalatable to both, so likely to throw the US back into recession, that they believed themselves certain to reach a compromise before the January 1st, 2013, deadline. That hasn’t happened, and the deadline is looming.

The “fiscal cliff” will also test the glimmers of bipartisanship that shone through Romney’s and Obama’s speeches yesterday. Obama promised to “sit down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward” and to “reach out and work with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together”.

One sentiment I heard over and over on the campaign trail, from Democrats and Republicans alike, was revulsion at the partisan paralysis of the legislature. After an ugly, multibillion dollar campaign that exhausted and demoralised the country, it will be tragic if the parties still can’t work together.

In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes in September, Obama recalled the Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to make him a one-term president. “After the election, either he will have succeeded in that goal or he will have failed,” Obama said.

“Either way, my expectation is, my hope is, that that’s no longer their number one priority. And I’m hoping that after the smoke clears and the election season’s over, that spirit of co-operation comes to the fore.”

Lessons learned

Obama’s wish for co-operation sounded naive in September. Before dawn yesterday , in the euphoria of his re-election, it suddenly felt possible. Surely, one thought, Republicans cannot devote another four years of politicking to the hatred of Obama.

Hopefully the president has learned some lessons, too. His failure to adequately explain and defend Obamacare helped the Republicans make his first term hell. The near disastrous first presidential debate of October 3rd was another example of an articulate and eloquent leader who was too weary or too detached to make the effort to communicate.

When asked by CBS last summer whether he had made mistakes in office, Obama admitted to one. It was, he said, the job of a president to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism”.

That is what he started to do yesterday morning.

* Lara Marlowe is Washington correspondent

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