When President Obama took the stage at McCormick Place in Chicago well after midnight, we were all too wiped out with joy or depression or Nate Silver auto-refresh fatigue to pay careful attention to the speech the newly reelected president delivered. The phrase that lingered in most of our sleepy ears was the reprise of his career-launching invocation of the United States as being more than red and blue states. So soaring, so unifying. But those words were merely the trappings of magnanimity draped over an argument that was, at its core, harsher than the one he had regularly delivered during the campaign.
The telling phrase came when Obama turned away from the thank-yous and patriotic hymnals into the guts of his remarks. “Despite all our differences,” he transitioned, “most of us share certain hopes for America’s future.” The key term here is “most,” as opposed to “all”—“most” meaning less than 100 percent and possibly as little as 51 percent. He attributed to most Americans a desire for great schools, a desire to limit debt and inequality: “a generous America, a compassionate America.”
Obama then proceeded to define the American idea in a way that excludes the makers-versus-takers conception of individual responsibility propounded by Paul Ryan and the tea party. Since Obama took office, angry men in Colonial garb or on Fox News have harped on “American exceptionalism,” which boils our national virtue down to the freedom from having to subsidize some other sap’s health insurance. Obama turned this on its head. “What makes America exceptional,” he announced, “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.” Obama invoked average Americans living out this ethos of mutual responsibility (such as a “family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbors,” the example of which stands at odds with the corporate ethos of a certain Boston-based private-equity executive). And even the line about red states and blue states began with the following statement: “We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions.”
Presumably more was at work here than mere uplift. The president was establishing the meaning of his victory. Even in the days leading up to Tuesday, clouds of dismissal had already begun to hover overhead. The election was “small,” in the words of one story in the conventional-wisdom-generating machine Politico, and “too narrow and too rooted in the Democratic base to grant him anything close to a mandate,” in the words of another. “I don’t think the Obama victory is a policy victory,” sniffed Romney adviser Kevin Hassett. “In the end what mattered was that it was about Bain and frightening people that Romney is an evil capitalist.”
Like every president, Obama won for myriad reasons, important and petty. But his reelection was hardly small and hardly devoid of ideas. Indeed, it was entirely about a single idea. The campaign, from beginning to end, was an extended argument about economic class.
It began last December, when Obama delivered a trademark Big Speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Teddy Roosevelt once spoke, on government’s place in mitigating income inequality. It was, in a sense, an extension of his failed budget negotiations with House Republicans. Obama had decided that his reelection effort would be an attempt to go over Speaker of the House John Boehner’s head and bring to the voters the proposition he couldn’t get the opposing party to accept: that both moral decency and plausible budgeting required an end to George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.
Though liberals may have found Obama’s second presidential campaign less joyful than his first, it’s worth noting that it was thematically sharper and more progressive. Even the ads attacking Mitt Romney’s history at Bain Capital, which could charitably be described as one-sided, supported the general theme. Republicans had deified the rich—they were “job creators” whose interests were wholly synonymous with those of the rest of us. The testimonials of the victims of Bain Capital certainly were a personal attack on Romney, but to view them as just a personal attack is to miss the blunt symbolic overtones.
Conservatives, of course, were dying to join the great debate over class—dying to listen to their standard-bearer assail Obama as a redistributionist and lay out a ringing defense of economic freedom. Romney constructed much of his summer campaign around Obama’s wrenched-out-of-context line “You didn’t build that,” conveying the party’s belief in the centrality of business owners, a notion for which Romney himself served as the main avatar. And when he selected Paul Ryan, the chief party ideologist, as his running mate, it seemed as though the battle of ideas was about to be joined in full.