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Obama’s victory

Publication Date : 19-11-2012


On November 7, the day after the presidential election in the United States, the people woke with a sense of relief. In unsettled economic times, the 2012 campaign between the Democratic incumbent, President Barack Obama, and the Republican challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney, was one of the most divisive in recent memory.

The agenda boiled down to two distinctive philosophies on the role of government and the nature of governance. The Republicans stood for a minimalist state (except for the military) with a muscular dosage of individualism.

The Democrats, on the other hand, pushed for an inclusive social policy agenda that would focus on revamping middle-class mobility through a public and private partnership.

Some pundits are comparing the 2012 election-year cycle to the polarised politics of the post–Civil War era. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, campaigned for reincluding the defeated South in the political agenda. The Radical Republicans, however, would have none of it, so the disgruntled Southerners attempted to block all forms of moderation, especially those designed to give legal rights of citizenship to the former slaves.

It is telling that during this year’s election campaign, both parties were woefully sketchy about how they would translate broad promises into specific policies, throwing into question whether the much admired American form of representative government is in peril. Will the Congress put aside party bickering to focus on deliberations for the common man?

After their defeat in the midterm election of 2010, the Democrats, and especially Obama’s senior advisers, set out to weave the upcoming presidential narrative by linking America’s future destiny with the increasing diversity of her population. The advisers’ campaign story line was that, in the twenty-first century, the United States would be best served by a government that is neither big nor small, but--in Obama’s own words--smart.

This would mean balancing the budget within 10 years and shrinking the national debt to reasonable proportions, while improving key public sectors, especially education, manpower training, infrastructure, and energy production. In foreign affairs, the focus would be on avoiding military interventions, relying instead on diplomacy and economic development.

To win an election, a candidate and staff members must design operational logistics to match value narratives. At the start, the Obama campaign’s analysts closely studied the socioeconomic background and voting preferences of the nearly 180 million voters in the 2008 election, cross-tabulating the demographic characteristics of the fifty states.

They observed that the country is now solidly Democratic in the coastal states, where urban, educated, female, and minority voters live, and solidly Republican in the country’s Midwest and South.

Therefore, in order for Obama to secure the necessary 270 votes in the electoral college, he had to win most of the nine states in which the membership of the two parties is more or less equal.

Obama’s senior managers settled on the key campaign theme of improving the economic plight of America’s middle-classes that had suffered under the previous Bush administration. In his many stump speeches and in TV ads, Obama stressed that income inequality had soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Even before the Republican Party nominated Romney as its presidential candidate, Obama’s TV ads were highlighting the way big businesses and corporations amassed wealth by closing factories and shipping jobs overseas. Especially in the nine so-called
"battleground states", the ads showed Romney profiting at the expense of workers. In contrast, throughout the campaign, Obama readily took credit for bailing out America’s long-standing pride and joy, the automotive industry.

Obama’s campaign staff devised a two-pronged strategic plan to engage the hearts and minds of unemployed working-class and middle-class Americans. First, the Democrats aired a video tape, which was obtained secretly, on which Romney is heard telling a group of wealthy donors that his job is to ignore the 47 per cent of Americans who view themselves as ‘entitled’ to government handouts. That tape immediately framed Romney as a plutocrat who is out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of middle-class Americans.

Second, aiming to realign the electorate, the Democrats put an enormous amount of energy into registering new voters. As early as 2010, Obama’s campaign staff installed offices in the nine contested states, staffing them with local volunteers, many of whom were the same persons who had updated their precinct voter lists from the 2008 election.

Obama’s Chicago headquarters searched the voter lists for registered Democrats and then looked for them on the most prominent social network websites, such as Facebook and Twitter. They then invited these individuals to urge their ‘friends’ to vote for Obama. This strategy, dubbed a ‘Voter Targeting Operation’, attempted to build a coalition of young people, women, blacks, Latinos, union members, city dwellers, and low and middle-income voters.

With state, local, and neighbourhood data profiles in hand, volunteers registered approximately 1.8 million first-time voters, making certain whenever possible that they cast their ballots early. All the data indicate that these efforts paid off. Three days before the election, some 25 million citizens had already voted in 34 states and the District of Columbia. By law, votes cannot be counted until the day of election. However, the polling data before the election indicated that, particularly in the closely contested states, the Democrats had an edge.

By all accounts, the 2012 presidential election cost more than US$2 billion--not counting the Republican primaries. The money chase in politics began when the US Supreme Court, in a case entitled Citizens United, legalised the First Amendment rights of corporations and unions to donate money to political candidates. Five of the nine judges ruled that corporations and unions, like individuals, have the right to spend as much money as they wish on advertising and other political expenses, so long as they are not directly related to the parties or politicians.

In crucial ways, the 2012 election has yet to resolve an important question: If public integrity is the heart and soul of a representative government, how will President Obama’s second term be seen by both parties and the populace at large? If demography is destiny, will the majority of white Americans, Christian evangelicals, and Southerners accept Obama as the legitimate chief representative of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy?

The writer is a sociologist who lives in California.


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