The polls had pointed to a very close election, and those of us who gathered around a television set here in a friend’s house in Washington, D.C., expected to be up till 3 a.m. to find out the final results. But by around 11:15 p.m. (US East Coast time), it was all over. All the major television networks projected a victory for Barack Obama in most of the so-called battleground states. In Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and especially the so-called bell-weather state, Ohio, without which no Republican candidate has coasted to victory since 1964, Obama had won a majority, and only in one of those states, Florida, was his edge paper-thin.
Both the Obama and Romney campaign had waged a fierce ground war in those states, battling county by county. The Romney offensive was to either retake counties which had gone for Obama in 2008 or reduce his lead there. Obama’s team essentially played defense, relying essentially on bringing out the vote.
Making sure women, African-Americans, and Latinos—Obama’s power base—voted meant bringing thousands of young volunteers from all over the country to drive people to the polls.
I expected the results to be much closer, given my sampling of voters during a brief stopover at Newark’s Liberty Airport on my way down to Washington on election day. Hub airports like Newark are good places to conduct sampling since they bring together people coming from all over the country and from all social classes. My sample was undeniably unscientific, though the ten respondents I talked to in one hour’s time before I had to report to my gate were picked randomly. Five said they were going for Romney, and four for Obama, with one “undecided” voter leaning towards Obama. The pro-Romney people were more heated when talking about why they were going for the Republican candidate. One said, “I’m a fiscal conservative and this president has been taking the country down the path of European socialism.” Another, an avowed born-again Christian woman, said, “I’m against Obama because he’s pro-abortion.”
The responses of the pro-Obama people were more moderate. A white bus driver said, “He needs four more years to do what he set out to do.” Another, an immigrant from Nicaragua, said, “he’s for the people and Romney’s for the rich.”
In the end, it came down to the more effective message on the key issue, the economy. Romney’s message that Obama had failed to fix the economy and he would do a much better job was less convincing than the president’s message that his administration had made progress but needed more time to achieve sustained growth. In the battle for Ohio, an industrial state where the auto industry has a significant presence, Obama’s bailing out of the auto industry in 2009, which Romney had opposed, was probably what put the president over the top.
People will long debate how Hurricane Sandy affected the outcome. For many analysts, this was the so-called “Black Swan,” or totally unexpected event that upends all expectations. The quick federal response to the disaster that hit New York and New Jersey and the opportunity it gave for Obama to get beyond a partisan image to look very presidential at the last stage of the campaign made a big difference in the outcome. Also, according to my friend, American University Professor Robin Broad, “the federal government’s response showed people that, contrary to the Republican message that big government is bad, it actually plays a positive role in people’s lives.”
What will happen now? Analysts are saying that with the Republicans continuing to dominate the House and the Democrats lacking a supermajority in the Senate, the politics of gridlock will continue. Yet the right wing Tea Party that has become the core of the Republican Party suffered a big defeat. Aside from preventing Obama’s victory, two of its high profile candidates in the Senate race who ran on an anti-abortion platform went down in defeat, the woman who won the Senate race in Wisconsin will be the first avowedly gay woman to sit in the Senate, and same-sex marriage initiatives won in most states where it was on the ballot.
As one television analyst colorfully predicted, “The Republican Party will now descend into warlordism in the aftermath of defeat. They’ll now be fighting among themselves about the causes of their defeat.” Equally colorful was Institute for Policy Studies Director John Cavanagh’s comment: “The Republican Party is in real trouble because it has become the party of white males, and white males are a disappearing species.” In other words, the party will now face the choice of moderating its stance towards working with Obama and making an effort to appeal to women and to Latinos in order to remain a relevant political force. Or it may choose to stick with its no-compromise policy and risk further isolation.
Obama comes out of this election with strengthened legitimacy, but whether that will be sufficient to surmount Republican opposition to his initiatives in the House and Senate to bring the US economy out of stagnation and moderate the nation’s conflict on “cultural” issues like abortion remains to be seen.
What does this mean for foreign affairs? Probably not much in terms of a change from the prevailing policies. Obama’s win gives him leverage vis-à-vis Israel, which has been threatening to make a unilateral attack on Iran. But he will probably continue to do the same failed policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan—that is, the US will continue to be bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and maintain its unpopular policy of using drones to target suspected terrorists in Pakistan. Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” is already roiling relations with China but a Romney victory would probably have brought about a more aggressive US policy towards Beijing on both the military and diplomatic fronts. As for the implications of Obama’s victory on climate change politics, Obama’s win, coupled with Sandy’s calamitous visit, may give him the space to make it an issue in his speeches but it probably won’t be enough to embolden him to get the US to commit to binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the climate negotiations.
As for myself, I leave Washington with a distinct feeling of ambivalence. I think Obama is better for the American people, but while I think a Romney victory would have had worse consequences for the world, as mentioned above, I do not think the Obama victory will spell a significant difference in Washington’s relations with the rest of the world. For me, what was otherwise a stirring victory speech by the president was spoiled by the totally unnecessary chauvinistic exclamation, “America, we are the greatest nation on earth.”