Was it more unlikely for Barack Obama, a black man four years out of the Illinois state senate, to win the American presidency – or for Barack Obama, a beleaguered president with record deficits and low economic growth, to become the first American president in modern history to win a second term with unemployment over 7.5 per cent?
Either way, Mr. Obama won a new term and a new start last night in an election that didn’t so much affirm the President’s leadership as it did invite him to try again–to tame the economic furies, to change the toxic atmosphere in the capital, to persuade House Republicans to reach a compromise that would permit Washington to address the crises that continue to grip the country.
For three consecutive elections, some combination of Ohio and Florida held the key to the White House. These two states, so different in geography and climate, nonetheless are America in miniature, the one an amalgam of the old immigrants who built the country in the early 20th century, the other a melting pot of the retirees and new immigrants who are shaping the demographics of the country in the early 21st century.
It was more than poetry that transformed those two states into battlegrounds. It was hard political reality, and while New York and California control American popular culture, Ohio and Florida are American political culture. That is one of the principal lessons of Campaign 2012. New York and California were where the candidates went to get money. Ohio and Florida were where the candidates spent their money.
But there are other lessons to emerge from last night’s election results.
One is that the Supreme Court ruling that permitted a flood of unregulated, unreported political spending into the campaign had a transformative effect, but perhaps not the one the experts expected. It produced tons of negative advertisements that verged on outright deception – but it also inflamed the passions of Americans so that in contested state after contested state voter turnout was high and so was voter passion.
In three of the past four elections, a traditional politician has faced a business executive with a Harvard M.B.A. and experience in a state governor’s chair. Twice, under George W. Bush, the businessman won. But Mr. Bush emphasized his political personality more than his business acumen, probably because he was a bigger success in Texas politics than he had been in Texas business. Mr. Romney, by contrast, emphasized his business skills. It was a beguiling appeal in an era of economic distress – but in the end Americans turned away from Mr. Romney, as if to say that the mess was made by politicians and almost certainly could best be cleaned up by politicians.
Both parties now face important intersections. One irony of Tuesday’s voting is that the re-election of Mr. Obama brings into sharp focus the end of the Obama years, four years hence. The President cannot run for re-election. The battle to succeed him will begin sooner than you might expect. And one of the decisions Democrats must make is how to prepare themselves for a new era.
But that task pales before the challenge facing the Republicans, who must decide whether they have nominated their last moderate-leaning establishment-oriented politician and whether they believe their future lies in the muscular conservatism of the new wave of Republicans, men and women like Representative Paul Ryan, the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee, who emphasize conviction over compromise.
Much of that will come into focus in the next several months. In the short- to mid-term, both parties face a so-called fiscal cliff – an imminent economic disaster that neither side seems prepared to address but that neither can ignore either. They still must face up to the growing danger posed by entitlements, such as old-age supplements and health care for the elderly, that are consuming increasing rates of the national wealth with the prospect of decreasing contributions from younger voters.
And all that is without mentioning the threat of terrorism, the prospect of a nuclear weapon in Iran, and continuing difficulties in Afghanistan.
Washington’s plate is full with vexing problems. Washington’s political leadership is exhausted by a brutal and bitter election season. But Washington’s problems will not wait – and Mr. Obama, newly re-elected, must swiftly rally capital and country to tackle them. He may find that a bigger challenge than winning a second term is fashioning a successful one.
- David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has followed U.S. politics for more than 30 years for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Boston Globe, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette