Last year in October, I did a book tour of Germany. Every night I was there, after my reading, I would have dinner with some of the Germans who were kind enough to have hosted me on the trip. And almost without fail, after enough time had passed that they felt comfortable with me, the more-or-less same question would come up. Paraphrased, it is thus: “Okay, seriously, what is going on with your politics over there? You’re scaring the hell out of us.” And specifically, they wanted to know what was going to happen to President Obama, which the Germans, to a person, saw as a reasonable and moderate leader. They were terrified that he would not be re-elected.
Here’s more or less what I said to the Germans then: “Look, all the political noise is going to get much worse in 2012 because it’s a presidential election year and that’s how we get. It’s going to get loud and weird and you’re going to be much more scared before it’s all over. But in the end Obama’s going to win, because he’s doing as well as he can under the circumstances, and because things are slowly turning around, and because the GOP is running its B-team for President. It’s going to be close, but Obama’s going to do it.”
So to all of my German friends: See? Just like I told you.
Four years ago, there were a lot of people who believed that Obama’s election heralded a material change in American politics. I would argue that it’s this one that’s the actual signifier of that change. Look: It’s one thing for a black man with a name like “Barack Hussein Obama” to win an election after eight years of a GOP presidency that culminated with two wars and the greatest economic crisis in eighty years. It’s another thing entirely for that same black man with a funny name to win a second term in the face of an unimpressive economic recovery and the full, uncontained and often unreasoned fury from his opposing side. For better or worse, Americans view one-term presidents as losers or historical flukes: See Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush as examples of this. Barack Obama, whatever else you will say about him — and many will — can no longer be categorized as a loser or a fluke. He won both the electoral and over 50% of the popular vote twice, which is the first time since Reagan that any president managed that.
More to the point, two years after a mid-term election that swept into office some of the most recalcitrant opposition that any modern president has seen, and after four years of dealing with a GOP whose major legislative goal (as Mitch McConnell so memorably put it) was to make Obama a single-term president, Obama’s electoral map was strikingly similar to his first; he lost only two states from 2008. This was a close election, on the popular election front. But after all the noise and thunder and intonation, and assuming Florida falls into the Democratic tally, as it appears likely to do at this point, Obama walks out of the election with 50% more electoral votes than Romney.
This wasn’t a squeaker, and Obama didn’t just get lucky. To be clear, he did get lucky, most obviously in drawing Mitt Romney as an opponent, who gave Obama far too many opportunities to punch at him, and in a GOP which persists in fielding candidates far to the right of the US population as a whole, giving the Democrats a field of bogeymen with which to scare its voter base. But Obama also won because he was canny: how Obama won Ohio this year will be required reading for political wonks for decades. And he also won because of demographics — a word which is currently being used as code by the right for “people who are not straight white men.” Well, as it happens, there are lots of people who are not straight white men in these here United States, and whatever code word you want to use for them, it turns out that their votes count just the same as anyone else’s. Unless the GOP is irretrievably stupid, this is the last presidential election they’ll assume they can win entirely white.
And saliently, Obama successfully made the argument that he was doing his job, despite (and sometimes in spite of) a solid, unified wall of opposition from the GOP. At the end of the day, luck, campaign smarts and “demographics” aren’t going to make the case for a re-election by themselves. People have to believe he’s getting things done. It appears they do.
Obama is not a fluke or a historical blip. You can argue he won his first presidential election on credit, and I’ll let you have that argument. It’s four years later, and the voters have seen him in action. This election he had to win with what was on his ledger. He won it, and he won it big enough to forestall all doubt. If you are one of those who will persist in thinking he’s there by accident or by trivial circumstances, you’re delusional. And you’re likely doomed to see your preferred presidential candidates lose. This isn’t Reagan’s America anymore, or Bush’s. It’s Obama’s. You should get used to that.
For all that, four years ago when Obama won, I offered readers here a reality check regarding their expectations for the man. Here is the reality check this year:
* The House is still in GOP hands. In the Senate the Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof majority. We have a divided government, and the GOP standard operating procedure is to oppose every single thing Obama is for. Don’t expect that to change.
* You’ve had four years to see how Obama works and how he does his job. If you’re expecting that to change, you haven’t been paying attention.
* Obama is not a liberal. He’s definitely not a socialist. He’s a moderately left-leaning centrist. Anyone who believes (or at least says) otherwise on either side of the aisle is speaking rhetorical nonsense. Obama will lead from the center. That’s what he does. That’s who he is.
* Those who dislike Obama for whatever reasons they do are still there. And they dislike him even more today. They also dislike what he represents: The end to a comfortable (for them), right-leaning United States. You will not stop hearing from them.
* The presidential election settled one thing: Who is president for the next four years. All the rest of it is up in the air. And a lot of it will be up to you, and us.
How do I feel about Obama’s re-election? As I said last night: Relieved. Pleased. And ready to move forward.
Congratulations to our president.
Congratulations to the United States.
Let’s get to work.