A small victory in a small campaign

Barack Obama has returned to the White House following one of the most acrimonious, negative and ideas-free campaigns in living memory.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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The polls before the US presidential election showed a tight contest, with Barack Obama edging out Mitt Romney. And that is what happened, more or less. The nationwide vote tally was very close, with Obama ahead by 50 per cent to 48 per cent as we go to press. But under America’s electoral-college system, Obama won handily, currently holding 303 votes to Romney’s 206 votes, with Florida’s 29 votes looking like they, too, might go to Obama.

This Obama victory was rather different to his win in 2008, and not only because Obama won by a much narrower margin. Turnout was down from 2008, although it held up more than some had expected. More importantly, the level of enthusiasm was significantly lower. In 2008, you could feel the excitement; this year voters went about their business in a low-key way.

You could say that it was inevitable that the turnout and passion would be lower, given that the novelty of electing the first black president was no longer a factor. But the drop-off had more to do with the character of the campaign. In 2008, Obama offered the promise of moving beyond the old politics of petty divisions and rancor, and he spoke in transcendent terms of ‘hope’ and ‘change’. People were genuinely inspired – not just because Obama was black, but because he seemed to present a way forward. In 2012, that message vanished. Where once Obama spoke of ‘transforming’ the future, he now spent most of his time attacking his opponent, occasionally defended his record, and said very little about what he would do if elected.

Indeed, the election put to an end one of the most acrimonious, negative and ideas-free campaigns in living memory. The most striking thing was how the attacks were so personal in nature. Obama’s campaign was most guilty in this regard, spending the entire campaign attacking Romney’s character: depicting him as a ‘vulture’ capitalist, and suggesting he was unethical and unpatriotic. In response, Romney himself mostly held back from retaliating, but his surrogates suggested that Obama’s failings as president had to do with his aloof, unenergetic or vindictive nature.

While 2008 was said to be about ‘big’ changes, the negative and petty criticisms meant that 2012 was exceptionally ‘small’. Each day on the campaign trail seemed preoccupied with a new phrase, like ‘You didn’t build that’, ’47 per cent’, ‘Binders of women’, ‘Romnesia’ – all ultimately forgettable and meaningless. At a time when the country faces huge challenges – a stagnant economy, high unemployment, lower incomes, mounting debt, foreign conflicts – the unwillingness of the candidates to broach these subjects, and dwell instead on the trivial, was remarkable, decadent even. As it proceeded, the campaign itself had the opposite effect seen in 2008: it lowered hopes and expectations, rather than raising them. It was a contest that reeked of despair. The best that supporters of one candidate could say was: the other guy is much worse than our guy.

In 2008, Obama appeared to be a larger-than-life individual, charismatic and the leader of not just a party but a social movement. He gradually lost this image over his four years in office, as he didn’t have much to show for it (a reality that I have found many people outside the US do not fully appreciate). Now, after an electoral contest in which he consistently took the low road, and suffered a number of ’emperor has no clothes’ moments (most notably after the first debate), his stature is further diminished. Obama may have won the election, but winning in the way he did – with personal attacks and no agenda for the future – he emerges a lesser figure.

This negative, ideas-free campaign seemed to be reflected in voting patterns. Early indications were that the various demographic groups moved strongly in their expected directions, and divisions widened: blacks and Latinos for Obama and whites for Romney; younger people for Obama and older people for Romney; coasts and upper Midwest for Obama, the South and ‘middle America’ for Romney. It also appeared that views on social issues and ‘values’ were critical in predicting which candidate voters went for, even in an election that was supposed to be decided by the state of the economy. These divisions meant that the victorious Democratic side responded more like the winner of a sports championship (‘Yeah, our side won!’), than representatives of a new, unifying movement taking the country forward.

These trends suggest the ascendancy of the politics of identity: who you are is more important than what you think. In a campaign devoid of ideas, people fell back on identity. Obama’s victory was a victory for the Democrats’ strategy of winning on social values and cohering support among women and minorities, an approach which was very pronounced at their national convention in September (see There’s more to politics than values, by Helen Searls).

But demography is not destiny, and it was not preordained that Romney would automatically lose just because Obama and the Democrats adopted this strategy. Of course, Romney’s conservative stance on social issues was unpopular nationally, and his lack of outreach to Latinos in particular was a major obstacle to winning. But Obama’s unimpressive record and lacklustre campaign meant that Romney had an opening – and he blew it. He could not raise the level of discussion to force Obama to engage in a battle of ideas. Romney simply tried to tag the blame for the unsatisfactory economy on Obama, but the unemployment rate was never going to win the election for him. Romney presented some platitudes about cutting the deficit and reducing government, but he insulted voters’ intelligence by never putting forward any details of what he would do. That was never going to turn around the election result decisively.

In the end, this was a weak incumbent versus a weak contender. In such a contest, it is not surprising that many played it safe and went with the one they knew.

If 2008 was a ‘change’ election, 2012 is its opposite – a ‘status quo’ election. Not only will the US have the same president, but the situation in Congress remains the same: a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a Democratic majority in the Senate. After a year-and-a-half and $6 billion in spending, the election leaves the US in a similar state. And as it stands now, there is no obvious way to break the gridlock that has characterised Washington politics in recent years (and Obama himself certainly did not propose a solution).

Following Obama’s victory, some of his supporters claim he has a mandate for change. This is wishful thinking. That’s not just because Obama won the overall vote by a slight margin, Republicans were re-elected in the House, and the country remains effectively split, but primarily because Obama did not campaign on an agenda for the future. Without offering such a vision, you cannot claim that voters were signaling support for a broader programme for change.

The US remains the world’s largest economy and the most influential power. Many in the US think of the nation as exceptional, and its president as the ‘leader of the free world’. You could say it is the biggest job in the biggest country. And yet, the 2012 election has been so narrow-minded and full of trivia that it has managed to downsize the role. When you play for small stakes, the spoils of victory are also small.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics USA


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