Comment: Obama – Another term of unfulfilled promises?

Justin Kempley 12 November 2012

To the delight of Democrats, the only real surprise on election night was just how convincingly President Obama won the Electoral College, confirming another four years in the White House. For Obama though, the result risks masking widespread dissatisfaction with a President who, regardless of Tuesday night, overpromised and under delivered in his first term. Guantanamo Bay remains open for business, and unemployment, at 7.9%, is still higher than when the President took office in January 2009. He squandered vital political capital to push ahead with an unpopular and largely botched healthcare reform bill while presiding over the most divided party system in living memory. Yet the Democratic faithful celebrated in Chicago, perhaps lacking the enthusiasm of Grant Park four years ago, but they celebrated nonetheless.

While Obama has had a number of crucial successes, not least the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, the line of defence for Obama this election was attack. Of the hundreds of thousands of Obama commercials in 2012, 80% were negative, a far cry from the message of hope and change that elevated him to high office four years ago. The unusually negative character of this campaign tells us much about the inadequacies of both Democrats and Republicans, which have shaped American politics since then.

Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate were apparent from the earliest stages of his campaign, as Republican opponents criticised his healthcare reforms as Governor of Massachusetts, and his apparent change of stance on issues ranging from abortion to same-sex civil unions. During one of the most heated Republican primary campaigns in living memory, candidates took turns to be pretender to the Republican throne. Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and pizza magnate Herman Cain all took the title of front-runner at one stage or another last year, as did Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the early primaries.

As weaker candidates failed to stand up to scrutiny Romney held a consistent yet distinctly unconvincing place in the polls. His emergence as the GOP nominee was by default rather than desire, the last survivor of a yearlong war of attrition that could have lasted longer had Rick Santorum not have dropped out in April. As candidates, Romney and Obama were actually quite alike, in that neither could make a truly convincing or positive case for their election. Americans were asked to choose the lesser of two evils on Tuesday, and Romney lost. If anything, it is more remarkable that Romney was ever in the running to win.

After the financial crisis in 2008, mistrust of corporate America among Democrats and Republicans alike has been widespread, and Romney allowed himself to be portrayed as the personification of corporate America. Ultimately, his record as CEO of Bain Capital would prove far more controversial than his Mormon faith, as Democrats alleged that he had outsourced American jobs overseas. His success in the private sector, normally an advantage when running for office, ultimately made his candidacy seem remote from the concerns of everyday Americans perhaps in part because of the nature of his work in private equity. When footage emerged in September of Romney telling a private fundraiser that he had no interest in winning over the 47% of Americans “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing…”, it allowed Democrats to define his candidacy, as the party capitalised with a splurge in campaign spending, establishing a clear lead in national polls.

Despite these wide ranging flaws, and the emergence of secret footage that badly undermined his campaign, Romney was genuinely in contention to win this year. A widely panned Obama performance at the first of three presidential debates in Denver last month echoed many of the criticisms of his presidency more generally. As Obama looked subdued, the first piece of genuinely positive coverage for the Romney campaign in months saw him surge into a convincing lead in national polls, putting him in contention to win a number of key swing states for the first time during the campaign. While Romney attracted criticism for being distinctly vague on many of his own policies by outperforming low expectations, Romney enjoyed a brief foray as the front-runner.

As TCS went to print last Thursday, with ballots still being counted, there was a slim chance that Romney may indeed have won the popular vote, despite an improved performance from Obama in the second and third debates, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last week. The Obama lead in key swing states may have held on Tuesday night, but ultimately it was a fragile one, and the election result will have implications for how Obama can govern during his second term.

Obama, now term-limited, may have been freed from the anxieties of re-election but his position as president over the next four years will be even more challenging than the previous two. In the short term, negotiations over Syria and the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’, which have been largely ignored during the campaign, will be high on his agenda. In the longer term, thorny issues around immigration, tax, Medicare and social security reform, as well as deficit reduction, may define his second term. Obama, with a limited mandate and a Republican House of Representatives, could learn from the success of Bill Clinton by committing to work more sincerely with House Republicans than he has since 2011.

Adopting this agenda, reforming with a social conscience and working closely with Republicans may be the only way for Obama to remain relevant during a second term where his authority will diminish quickly. Similarly, the Republican Party must reform itself to remain relevant in 2016 and beyond, and build a coalition of voters which includes moderates, as well as more African-American and Hispanic voters. In an election where neither the House, the Senate, or the Presidency changed hands, the curious legacy of 2012 may yet be the kind of change which President Obama promised in Grant Park four years ago.

Justin Kempley