Tonight, you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.
–Barack Obama, Election Night 2012
President Obama’s election night speech Tuesday could have gone in many directions but, as it turned out, it was pitch perfect for the battle that was shaping up even as he spoke.
A Striking Victory
There was plenty for the President to gloat over in the returns. The coalition of women, young people, minorities and college-educated whites that put Obama into office four years ago –– all those unemployed college students with fading Obama posters on the wall, as Paul Ryan famously quipped– came back to the polls in even larger numbers this year to give him a second term.
His campaign cobbled old style precinct politics onto a high tech get-out-the-vote platform that proved so successful it will transform politics for years to come. And despite four years of unemployment near or over eight percent, an approval rating under 50 percent, and over a million television commercials questioning his competence, the President convinced 60 million voters that he was a more trustworthy steward of the nation’s economy than a businessman who saved the Salt Lake City Olympics (although he also drew 57 million votes).
A Disjointed Campaign
They were an odd pair of opponents, so different in background, temperament, upbringing, experience, even hobbies, there was no common ground for small talk when they met at the debates. They’d never met before in person and the campaign they waged, as a result, was a twitterish mix of snark and symbolism, mostly conducted by surrogates and characterized by dueling interpretations of fact swirling around in parallel universes, one dominated by a Tea Party version of an America that actually never was, the other living on the hope of what America could be if only it its politics weren’t so venal.
These parallel universes played out in political commercials splattered across TV in the swing states, in the campaign coverage of pundits on cable channels like Fox and MSNBC, and in Facebook likes from conservatives and liberals who, too often, only like people like themselves. Bridging that divide is essential to restoring some balance to government in Washington, and Obama took the first step in his Election Night speech.
No Drama Obama
He had plenty of time to prepare it. He’d known for weeks that if his staff could execute the plans they had put in place, the election was his. So while Mitt Romney jetted off for a last minute visit to Pittsburgh, Obama spent his Election Day playing basketball with old friends. He stopped briefly in Hyde Park to encourage volunteers making last minute calls. He did the requisite round of satellite interviews with local broadcast media in swing states. He enjoyed a quiet dinner at home with his family, then tucked his speech in his pocket and headed off to the Fairmont Hotel to await the returns.
The wait took longer than expected. Although NBC called the election at 10:12 PM (CST) and other networks quickly followed suit, Karl Rove, serving as a guest commentator on Fox, could not get his head around the fact Romney lost Ohio. He and his confederates in the Romney camp disputed the call. (He went so far as to challenge the Fox networks own prognostidators.) So Election Night coverage went into a 90 minute stall waiting for Romney to accept the outcome. While we waited, Obama sent off this email to his supporters:
I’m about to go speak to the crowd here in Chicago, but I wanted to thank you first.
I want you to know that this wasn’t fate, and it wasn’t an accident. You made this happen.
You organized yourselves block by block. You took ownership of this campaign five and ten dollars at a time. And when it wasn’t easy, you pressed forward.
I will spend the rest of my presidency honoring your support, and doing what I can to finish what we started.
But I want you to take real pride, as I do, in how we got the chance in the first place.
Today is the clearest proof yet that, against the odds, ordinary Americans can overcome powerful interests.
There’s a lot more work to do.
But for right now: Thank you.
Another Stirring Speech
The email was the prelude to one of the best speeches Obama has given this year. It began simply enough as a tribute to voters that elevated the electoral process to the highest heights of patriotism. “I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a long time––by the way, we have to fix that,” he joked. “Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone, whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.”
This had not been the most ennobling campaign, Obama acknowledged. “I know that political campaign can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics that tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests,” he said. “But if you ever get the chance to talk to folks who turned out at our rallies and crowded along a rope line in a high school gym, or saw folks working late in a campaign office in some tiny county far away from home, you’ll discover something else.”
Then he delved into a topic that was hardly on the minds of his audience, but foremost in his own: what comes next. “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough time, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy,” he said. “That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t.”
The Elephant in the Room
What has changed, however, is the arena in which those opinions are expressed. The presumption on the campaign trail was that Obama’s victory constituted a mandate to secure the future of Obamacare and Wall Street reform, stop the domestic spending cuts proposed by Paul Ryan and bring about higher taxes for wealthier Americans––the lynchpin of his campaign. But nothing can be presumed once Congress gets involved.
The same election that Obama won left control of the House and Senate little changed from what it was before. House Speaker John Boehner will still have a slightly diminished 237-198 edge over Democrats in the House, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have Democrats in 53 of the 100 Senate seats (a majority but not the 60 plus super-majority needed to break a Senate filibuster).
This is the same configuration of power that has created gridlock in the Capital for the last two years and is responsible for the “fiscal cliff” that looms ahead in 2013. In all the lofty talk on the campaign trail about deficit reduction, tax policy and economic stimulus, the fiscal cliff was the elephant in the room, barely mentioned in the three presidential debates. But it is a very real convergence of tax hikes and spending cuts that could shave 4 percent off the Gross National Product and plunge the country back into recession, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It stems from the simultaneous expiration of the Bush tax cuts, an end to payroll tax breaks and other stimulus efforts, and draconian cuts in military spending and domestic spending that Congress chose to kick down the road a year ago when it couldn’t resolve the debate over raising the federal debt ceiling.
Finding a way around the fiscal cliff––with the lame duck Congress still in place––was clearly on the mind of President Obama as he spoke Election Night. He suggested in the speech he’d like to sit down with Romney to talk about “where we can work together to move this country forward” and placed calls to Reid and Boehner the next morning to get the ball rolling. This, of course, prodded Boehner to call a press conference to remind reporters he too had a mandate, and he would use it to negotiate on behalf of the Republicans.
Velvet Glove, Iron Fist
In his remarks, President Obama spoke glowingly of his hope for compromise. “Despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future,” he said. “I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sides or shirk from a fight.”
“I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”
They are both wonderful sentiments, Barack. Now kick some ass and let’s get this done.