President Obama’s re-election marks the most decisive mandate for an assertive, progressive governing model in well over a generation.
It is worth beginning with a memory. Barack Obama was first elected after a period of profound failure by elite and government institutions, from finance to foreign policy to Hurricane Katrina, and his first term immediately and unapologetically enacted a flurry of government solutions.
The new president used federal power to take populist action in a range of markets—health insurance, cars, banking and small business. In each case, Republicans responded with the same argument: government was too big, expensive and incompetent for these tasks.
They pressed that attack in Congress, with brinksmanship on the debt ceiling and record-breaking levels of obstruction. They went to court, appealing for a judicial check on Obama’s democratically enacted reforms. And they took their argument to the people, with a four-year anti-government crusade—first on the ground, with those early, evocative Tea Party protests targeting both parties for government spending; then on the air, with record-breaking spending on advertisements insisting that Obama’s government was out of control.
Some of those efforts flagged before Election Day, including the pivotal judicial endorsement of Obama’s healthcare law, but on Tuesday, they were officially and roundly rejected by the American public. It is hard to overstate the significance of the endorsement of Obama’s approach to government, after such a long, substantive battle during a punishing recession.
In fact, the Electoral College, an arbitrary political constraint, placed a special strain on this debate. That is because the swing states increased the focus on regions where people’s livelihoods literally depend on Obama’s economic intervention.
The “role of government” was not a philosophical question in the Ohio, where three out of four voters said the economy is doing poorly and 59 percent backed the auto bailout; or in Nevada, which leads the nation in foreclosures. Politics has certainly changed a lot in an era of micro-targeting, Super PACS and Twitter. Apparently there is still a limit, however, on what cash and spin can do. Swing state voters did not believe that the government had nothing to do with saving Detroit, or that the Jeep factories their friends worked at were closing, or that eliminating public sector jobs is good for the job market, or that up was actually down because a television ad said so.
Reflecting on all those tactics, however, does suggest one limit on how much credit should accrue solely to the president. In politics, your opponent can be far more important than your vision. For a range of reasons, including the unusually fierce primary challenges that Republicans faced from the right, the GOP did not offer a moderate case to the nation this year. Republicans presented the coldest, most concentrated pitch for selfish individualism since Barry Goldwater. Historians may marvel at how Ayn Rand and the assault on “takers” became such mainstream themes in the year 2012. Or how nationally televised primary debates devolved into attacks on government obligations that were once located firmly in the zone of bipartisan consensus. National disaster response used to be an obvious government project, but Romney felt the need to pretend that states should pick up the tab; several Republicans disputed the duty of hospitals to provide emergency care to poor people, a humane tradition that was codified into federal law by, yes, Ronald Reagan.
And to be clear, as the politicians say, all of that doesn’t even reach the patronizing hypocrisy at the core of today’s GOP, a party which marches earnestly against government subsidies for healthcare but seeks a federal government role in your doctor’s office, your uterus and your marriage.
Those are old, often bitter debates. Yet the stakes and tone were stronger this year. That is partly due to the rise of powerful women—in the media, where familiar conservative ideas about rape and vaginal ultrasounds drew more outrage, and in Congress, where a record nineteen women are headed to the Senate next year—who shaped a more strident reckoning for the politics of sexism. In the October homestretch, President Obama even bolstered the feminist framework for his longstanding pro-choice stance, telling an interviewer that we “don’t want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women’s healthcare decisions.”
Walking that bridge from economic to social policy, Obama’s Democratic Party not only looks less conflicted than the GOP, it also lines up with today’s majority. The line for liberals is pretty clear—the government should be in the business of advancing opportunity for all, but avoid meddling in personal choices. On Tuesday, several successful statewide initiatives reflected that balance. Voters endorsed Obama’s use of federal economic power, but rejected a government role for controlling who people marry, or whether they smoke pot at home.
In the end, this was a very long campaign. Despite all the silliness, it also offered a stark, substantive choice. Republicans said government can’t help much and people have to make it on their own. Obama said “we’re all in this together.” To apply Muhammad Ali’s famously short poem to America, it was “Me, We.”
And we won.
For more on what Obama's victory means for the country, read George Zornick's latest.