President Obama declares victory Tuesday night in Chicago. Photo by George Zornick.
The chief problem of President Obama’s first term was the recalcitrant, sometimes rabid opposition from congressional Republicans and their allies. Such it was, then, that his victory speech Tuesday night—after he achieved a dominating re-election tally—was aimed directly at busting that logjam open:
[E]lections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty…. But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future…. We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet. We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this—this world has ever known.…
That’s the vision we share. That’s where we need to go—forward. That’s where we need to go. Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.
Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together…. I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
Reading between the lines, Obama’s message was this: Republicans declared from day one that their chief goal was to stop me. They didn’t. So now it’s time to actually get some things done. If you think about it, the campaign was largely based on this premise and embodied by the slogan: “Forward.”
In a rational world, this would happen. Last night was, without question, a strong endorsement for Obama’s policies—and a strong rejection of the GOP’s. Obama is on track to destroy Romney in the Electoral College, 332-206, winning every contested state except North Carolina. In each of those states, people were bombarded daily, even hourly, with arguments from each campaign. In every case but one, they chose Obama. He has at present a 250,000 popular-vote lead, which is still bigger than John F. Kennedy’s margin of victory. His Electoral Vote margin was bigger than those of Richard Nixon (1968), Jimmy Carter (1976) and George W. Bush (2000 and 2004).
Moreover, in the Senate races, voters issued a stunning endorsement of Democratic candidates—actually expanding the Democrats’ lead in the Senate by two seats despite the fact that only five Republicans held endangered seats, and the Democrats had to defend many, many more. The GOP won some races it was supposed to, but lost many it wasn’t—including in Missouri and Indiana, where even red-state voters rejected conservative extremism. The Republicans even failed to win a Senate seat in North Dakota, which most Democrats thought was a goner six months ago.
A few too many pundits have been pushing a “split-decision” theme because Republicans held the House, but remember that these races are far more localized, and gerrymandering has wreaked havoc on the system. (Consider, for example, Pennsylvania: Obama carried it 52–47, but voters elected a congressional delegation of thirteen Republicans and five Democrats).
Of course, we don’t live in a rational political world, and Republicans won’t back down—not right away, at least. Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner has already re-iterated his caucus won’t budge on the Bush Tax Cuts, and House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a defiant statement Tuesday night saying that “The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term.”
But Obama isn’t planning to neutralize them with just a speech. Look at the second-term goals he laid out: “Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do.” Progressives will be underwhelmed by that list of goals, and they should be. (Though he also mentioned slowing global warming, reducing inequality and fixing the broken voting system).
Crucially, though, these issues seem designed to drive deep wedges into the Republican Party and finally break the back of their uncompromising opposition. Will Republicans actually kill immigration reform, after Latinos flocked to Obama by wider margins on Tuesday than in 2008 and guaranteed his re-election? I highly doubt it. Obama could receive significant Republican support for a major initiative, something that never happened in his first term. It would drive a perhaps lasting wedge into the GOP, openly pitting the hardcore members against those inclined to compromise. Moreover it will break their bond with the base, which expects them to oppose all things Obama, always.
Ditto the tax reform—in almost every likely scenario, Grover Norquist’s iron grip on the Republican Party will have to be loosened. The Bush tax rates expire if Congress does nothing, so obstruction won’t work, and it seems inevitable Republicans will have to let the top rates go. The same goes if the president is able to enact deficit reform with Republican support, thus co-opting their key issue. (This needs to be done in a way that doesn’t harm those who depend on the safety net—much, much more on this to come from us in the months ahead). Once these things happen and the GOP can’t say no to every single thing, maybe we can get to the rest of the really progressive, and necessary, measures.
But all these political maneuverings aside—and even if one doesn’t buy into Obama’s strategy here—last night’s victory was also a triumph over some truly destructive politics.
I admit, I was, and am, one of the cynics Obama was referring to in his speech. One that often believes “politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests.” But standing on a chair in the media section last night, watching through camera risers and the elevated smartphones of thousands of joyful people as America’s first black president give a triumphant victory address, I admit to being overwhelmed, and hopeful.
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love,” Obama said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
After seeing the GOP spend most of the day actively trying to exclude people of color from the voting process, and after watching the defeat of domestic policies that would have devastated the poor and disabled, it was an emotional moment for me to hear that. Moreso because the first two elections I was invested in saw cynical, divisive and truth-averse Republicans—exceeded this year in each measure by Mitt Romney—triumph, and proceed to “create their own realities” to the grave detriment of the country.
Not everything will change. It’s quite warranted to remain skeptical of how much Obama can achieve. The abhorrent civil liberties policies, the extralegal drone strikes, are unacceptable problems likely to continue. But there’s good reason, at least, to believe the country will do what Obama promises over the next four years: move forward.
For more forecasts of the next four years, check out why Obama’s big win could mean bold decisions from the Oval Office.