Elections explain America. They tell us — they tell the world — who we are. And, of course, elections define government and power. The 2012 election may be especially significant. Let’s begin with the returns: President Obama won eight out nine swing states and 61 percent of the Electoral College; the Democrats took ten out of twelve contested Senate races for a ten-seat majority in the Senate; and the Republicans lost just seven seats in the House and maintain a solid 35-seat majority.
How does all that add up? Here are ten takeaways from 2012.
1. Barack Obama’s chance. Only four other Democrats have won back to back terms since the people started voting for presidents in 1824: Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. All four remade the Democratic Party. And the first three profoundly changed the United States. Now Barack Obama gets his turn.
He starts his second term with what we might call the FDR advantage: He had a very successful first term as legislator in chief. Democrats use a simple metric for success: Did the president introduce important social programs? With his health care reform now secure (caveats and warnings below), President Obama joins a very short list of Democrats who constructed major entitlements.
There is another, more subtle indicator of important presidencies. They reshape American markets — the ways we compete, grow rich, and distribute or redistribute our resources. Here too the Obama Administration’s first term was unusually eventful (as conservative commentators frequently lament). From health care to financial markets, from student loans to environmental rules, the administration pushed back against the deregulatory thinking of the past thirty-five years.
Now, with a second term won, the administration has the opportunity to complete what it began. A Republican victory would have blunted — and, in many cases, dismantled — the administration’s first-tem initiatives. Instead, the Democrats now have an opportunity to implement and grow their program.
Their task involves more than hammering out financial regulations or negotiating with governors about insurance pools. To make it all work, to build programs that last, the president will have to do something truly ambitious: change our political discourse.
2. Great presidents define America. They tell a story, a narrative of the nation. The standard for presidential greatness is simple: tell a story that sticks.
Take Franklin Roosevelt. From his first inaugural address he had a fresh and consistent message: “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is … to minister to ourselves and to our fellow man.” President Roosevelt repeated that story, in speech after speech. The era of rugged individualism was over. Americans were responsible for one another — and the government would help. That frame stuck and organized American thinking for generations. It invited everything from John Kennedy’s call for public service to Richard Nixon’s bold environmental reforms.
Ronald Reagan is a great president because he shut down what had become, by 1980, a tired and insipid liberalism. He articulated a rising new alternative: individualism, markets, the chance to be a millionaire (as he put it in his diary), and contempt for “big government.” Reagan set a frame that even Democrats like Bill Clinton could not escape (“The era of big government is over.”) More than 30 years on, perhaps the Reagan message is itself growing tired and ready for revision.
Now Obama has his chance to inject a different language and new symbols into the political discourse. For the administration’s programs to cohere, they must fit a larger narrative about our national purpose. The most conspicuous failure of Obama’s first term was the president’s curious inability to communicate a large, clear message. Ultimately, it is this dimension — can he offer us a story about us? — that will shape the long term impact of this presidency.
Obama’s first-term failure is so odd because he owns a powerful narrative about the nation. He spoke it with passion in the most memorable (and loudly cheered) moment of his victory speech on election night.
What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared — that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations …. love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.
Here are two classic American themes, reconfigured for a new era: The nation of diversity. And the obligations we owe one another. This is a powerful combination rooted in an American rhetorical tradition known as the social gospel. It was the gospel of Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, although Americans have not heard it much in recent decades. Just scan that passage in Obama’s address: Love? Charity? Duty? Shared destiny? Make those stick and say good bye to Ronald Reagan’s America.
This is Obama’s great opportunity. But it will not be easy. He has to convey his story — the celebration of diversity and community — above the media din. It means doing things he resisted during the first term: Telling stories, inspiring followers, repeating the same message again and again, talking — as Hilary Clinton said disparagingly during their primary battle — in poetry. Ultimately, this is the most difficult and elusive of presidential exercises: giving Americans a new language, a new set of assumptions. Barack Obama’s real challenge amounts to this: Can he set the tropes of diversity and communion — love, even — next to the metaphors of rugged individualism?
3. Warning: second terms are terrible. Now, the bad news for Democrats. Beginning with George Washington, second terms are a litany of troubles. No modern president has had a good time of it. Work backwards: George Bush’s second term started with Katrina and ended in financial disaster; Clinton met Monica and was impeached; Reagan ran into Iran Contra, saw his approval plummet, lost the Senate, had a bout with cancer, and grew deeply despondent. Richard Nixon resigned. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, a stroke, and became enmeshed in civil rights. FDR lost his coalition in Congress, saw the economy falter, and was humiliated when he tried to intervene in the midterm elections. Of course, history is not destiny. But it offers second-termers a gloomy warning. It gets only harder and the burdens of office take a personal toll.
4. A more powerful presidency. The election results suggest that we will see more of a worrisome trend: the flow of power to the White House. George W. Bush outraged Democrats by making policy through executive order. When Congress gridlocked after the 2010 midterm, President Obama discovered the lure of this authority. For example, he simply bypassed Congress and used an executive order to enact part of the Dream Act. Jubilant throngs of young undocumented aliens rushed to government offices and got the papers that made them (temporarily) legal residents. The same groups, particularly Latinos and Asians, remembered on Election Day. Perhaps no other administration policy had as much electoral payoff. News reports suggest the lesson has not been lost on Obama or his team. Watch for more government by executive order in the term ahead.
The parties face a choice. Congressional leaders can find a way to work with the administration. Or we will see four years of executive action that leaves Congress weaker than ever.
5. The new American electorate. Back in 2006, when Republicans controlled both Congress and the Presidency, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles addressed the beleaguered Senate Democrats huddled at their annual policy retreat. “You know,” he told them, “California used to be a red state.” (Between 1960 and 1990, California voted for a Democratic presidential candidate just once.) “And then the Republicans pissed off two million Mexican Americans like myself [with their restrictions on immigrants]. Two million pissed off Mexican Americans turned California blue. You want to become the majority party? Come get our vote.” This is precisely what the Obama Democrats ended up doing.
The conventional wisdom about Barack Obama’s reelection is both simple and right on the money: A demographic time bomb exploded on the Republicans. The trends have been clear for some time. The United States is experiencing the second largest era of immigration in its history (now approaching 15 percent of the population). Exit polls suggest that the new American vote was an important part of the Obama coalition. Democrats overwhelmingly won the votes of Latinos (getting roughly 71 percent of their votes), Asians (73 percent), the young (60 percent), African Americans (93 percent) and women (56 percent). Latino voters played a major role in flipping five recently red states: Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado (that’s 62 electoral votes). Put those states back in the Republican column and Romney is one small state shy of victory. Another long time trend was equally important. According to Gallup, the twenty-point gap between men and women was the largest in history.
It is worth putting aside the political calculations, for a moment, and appreciating how American politics have changed: Twenty-three years ago, politics was white and male. There were two women in the Senate; only six women (except those who followed their husbands into office) had ever been elected the governor of a state; Latinos and Asians were barely on the political radar. The 2012 election put twenty women in the Senate and seven in Governor’s mansions. For the first time, white males will make up a minority of the House Democrats. Our politics reflect a new America.
Of course, no one embodies the changing nation like Barack Obama. He helped crystallize a difference between the parties that was long in the making. To put it crudely, the Democrats embraced diversity, immigrants, gender equality, cities, and multiculturalism. The Republicans, in contrast, lined up votes from white males, religious evangelicals, rural people, older voters, and the wealthy — what might be called traditional America. Both parties understand that these kinds of group alliances are never set in stone. Every one of them can, and eventually will, shift as the parties adapt and change. For now, however, the Republicans face a demographic challenge that will grow more difficult every year. The old white vote shrinks as the recent immigrant vote rises. And women vote more than men (by about 5 percent).
6. The Republicans’ difficult choice. Republican party leaders have been reading the demographic trends for more than a decade; George W Bush was particularly alert to the changes in America. The 2012 election results brought new converts to the ranks of reform Republicans. In the days following the vote, leaders called for reaching out to Hispanics; some embraced immigration reforms aimed at undocumented aliens that they (and their 2012 party platform) had disparaged as “amnesty.” Here’s a mark of how this election changed America: When President Obama promised, in a speech before Congress, that health reform would not apply to undocumented aliens, Congressman Joe Wilson became an instant celebrity by shouting, “You lie!” Today, the president is no longer likely to tout the restriction, the congressman is less likely to call him on it, and party leaders would all be shocked — shocked! — to hear a member disparage immigrants in that way.
However, securing immigration reform will take courage and leadership. The Republican coalition includes a high-octane populism fueled by economic pain, racial anxiety, cultural resentment, and nostalgia for simpler times. (The original Populists lashed the same sentiments to the Democratic party in the 1890s.) The Tea Party fed on these fears and yearnings. Today’s red state populists reflect a deep status anxiety about the changing face of America. They are by no means the only group in the Republican tent, but they pose a dilemma for the party: They offer the GOP their passion while they drive away Hispanics, Asians, women, and young people. They win primaries and lose general elections.
The traditionalists in the party turn out for primaries and for midterm elections. If Republican leaders do not quickly seize the chance to hammer out reforms their opportunity will evaporate. The focus on the 2012 election losses will soon dissolve into anticipation over the looming 2014 midterm. Then, the old status quo is likely to reassert itself. The passion rising from the grass roots, furious at Obama for something or other, will once again look both alluring and scary to party leaders. In the short run, midterm turnout, populist anger, and attractive candidates may win elections and put off the day of demographic reckoning. In the long run, the Republicans ignore the new America at their peril.
7. The incumbent’s new advantage. From 1900 to 1990, only five (of sixteen) presidents won reelection. Now, three in a row have managed to do so. They are not, as a group, conspicuously more popular than their failed predecessors. What explains this new normal?
The answer may lie in the sheer complexity of today’s electoral machinery. A well-managed White House can deploy astonishing resources; the pick-up teams that surround a challenger cannot hope to match them. The Obama administration spun off a reelection team, led by Jim Messina, in March 2011. They began with long lists of supporters from the last campaign and fat coffers from their relentless fund raising. They rapidly constructed a network of field offices in the swing states. The resulting ground game — dedicated to getting out the vote — was, by all accounts, extraordinary. Supporters were flooded with nudges (by mail and email, tweet and text); the barrage drew on motivational research and remarkable data mining. For example, researchers discovered that guilt and pride get people to the polls; the week before the election, many swing-state Obama supporters got cards noting how many times they had voted in the last five elections, compared to the local average.
While the Democrats were building their organization, Republican challengers with small campaign organizations were shaking hands in coffee shops across Iowa and New Hampshire. Mitt Romney had to survive the grueling, expensive, multiyear state-by-state combat through the primaries. When he emerged, in the middle of the Spring 2012, he faced a daunting organizational challenge: In roughly six months he had to sooth the hard feelings within the party; pivot from the party and introduce himself to the rest of the nation; build a national organization; raise a billion dollars; and respond to a multi-million dollar Democratic barrage that was already portraying him as a clueless rich guy.
Of course, it is not impossible to defeat a sitting president. A very popular alternative — a Reagan — would still swamp a very unpopular incumbent — say, a Jimmy Carter. A formidable organization will not overcome a plunging economy. But the organizational and financial imperatives of the 21st century campaign appear to give the incumbent a formidable new advantage.
The same goes for Congressional campaigns where incumbents have an even larger advantage. Most House members have only three things to fear: A primary challenge from the fringes if they move too close to the center; losing a familiar constituency after redistricting (which happens every ten years); and, of course, a scandal.
8. Things change fast. Here’s the good news for Republicans: The electoral map is always in flux. Governor Mike Dukakis, running just four presidencies ago, knew there was no chance to win red states like Vermont or California – a Democrat was far more likely to carry Texas. But he could always count on deep-blue West Virginia (in fact, one of the few states Dukakis won). The red states of the 1980s are blue states today, and vice versa. Scrolling through past election maps illustrates how rapidly electoral politics change.
The rapid change extends to winners and losers. In the last eleven elections, a branch of government — House, Senate, or White House — has switched party hands eight times. That’s unprecedented. Through most of the 20th century, branches of Congress only rarely changed hands. After this election, in contrast, post-mortems prominently featured the failure of either party to flip a branch. What was once unusual has become the expected.
There’s one other thing that’s changing: The number of states in play. Not long ago most states were in reach for either party. Between 1964 and 1972 every state but Massachusetts switched sides at least once. Today, the number of swing states dwindles with each election. Only about 12 states remain remotely competitive; and twenty-eight states went to one candidate or the other by more than fifteen percent. What happens to democracy when fewer people in fewer states cast votes that matter?
Still, the shrinking contest may ultimately turn out to be a needless worry. If history is a guide, today’s safe states will become tomorrow’s battlegrounds.
9. Get health reform right. Winning the election permits the Obama administration to finish implementing health reform. Few tasks are as consequential. The Johnson Administration’s Medicare implementation had ramifications that we still feel almost half a century later: It desegregated American hospitals, ensured a universal entitlement, and baked health care inflation right into the formula. Despite both positives and negatives, the result was one of the most popular programs the federal government has ever run.
The Obama administration’s job is far more difficult than simply setting up a universal entitlement. It must coordinate fifty state governments, private insurance carriers, Medicaid, the IRS, and a long list of public and private actors. If the administration creates a relatively efficient and popular program, it will leave behind a formidable legacy. Resistance from hold-out states will soon evaporate. On the other hand, a convoluted, bureaucratic program will damage Democrats — and never mind the American health care system — for a long time to come.
10. Still more to do. Implementing one of the most important reforms in American social history might seem like enough for the next four years. But it is just the start. Twenty two million people will, in the best case, not have health insurance. Costs will continue to pose a problem. American health care outcomes languish behind other nations. Global climate change — as Superstorm Sandy reminded us — threatens environmental health. The world population is packing into cities without the most basic infrastructure or health services. We are not well equipped to cope with the next round of pandemics.
These kinds of problems — and many more — never came up in the election campaign. There’s an old bit of political wisdom: Politicians don’t raise problems till solutions to them have gained some traction. And solutions to this long list of problems will have come from researchers, scholars, and thinkers — from people like us. Our own job, in the years ahead, is every bit as important as what goes on in Washington.
Editor’s note: Readers may also be interested in James Morone’s article, Presidents And Health Reform: From Franklin D. Roosevelt To Barack Obama, in the June 2010 issue of Health Affairs.