A little after 11 p.m. CST on November 6, I was huddled in the bowels of the monstrosity that is McCormick Place, the sprawling convention center in which Barack Obama held his Election Night party in Chicago, gamely trying to sober up after one too many tumblers of Buffalo Trace, when a text message hit my phone that spoke volumes about the victory that the TV networks had just declared for the president over Mitt Romney: “Reality wins,” it said.
There were several ways to read this message. The most obvious was in reference to the reality that the plethora of public polls that so many conservatives had decried for months as deliberately skewed had been proved correct. Another was more partisan: that Obama’s reelection was a triumph of facts and reason over the humbug and make-believe-ism that Romney had been peddling. Given that the text in question came from a poll-obsessed borderline pinko (and, even worse, a Brit), both these interpretations were perfectly plausible. But it was a third sense in which the verdict rang true that struck me as most meaningful: The reality that prevailed last Tuesday was that of the emerging new American electorate.
Just as he was in 2008, Obama in 2012 was the proximate beneficiary of that nascent transformation. Taking the stage a bit past midnight with his wife, Michelle, and their girls, the president wore a look of infinite satisfaction, justifiable pride, and even a hint of humility, and then proceeded to deliver his best speech of the campaign: mature and generous, passionate and unifying, shot through with poetry that carried echoes of his past—of 2008 (eight invocations of hope, three more of hopefulness), of his roof-raising 2004 convention keynote (“We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and forever will be, the United States of America”)—and prose that promised a revival of the post-partisan approach to the challenges the country faces that made him so appealing to so many in the first place.
Those challenges are enormous, and in some cases require immediate action: to wit, the looming fiscal cliff. For Obama, addressing them carries no small degree of risk, but also offers him the opportunity to build on the achievements of his first term and join the ranks of our most successful presidents. For his Republican counterparts, however, the situation is more urgent—and more dire. Having failed to dislodge an incumbent whom much of the party regarded as both eminently beatable and basically illegitimate, and having lost seats in both chambers and seen cultural liberalism (with the legalization of same-sex marriage in three states and the legalization of cheeba in two) on the march, the GOP finds itself facing something akin to an existential crisis.
The full sweep and scale of these implications weren’t remotely clear to the thousands packed into McCormick Place. All they knew was that, against all forecasts to the contrary, the hour hadn’t run late, nails hadn’t been bitten, the finish hadn’t been photo; Election Night had instead been a vintage No Drama Obama affair. But when it came to explaining what happened, the crowd itself provided a clue, for here you had Obama Nation in all its Technicolor glory: black and white, yellow and brown, every hue but gray—a tableau at stark variance with what you saw at any Romney rally, where the throngs were as blindingly alabaster as Joe Biden’s choppers.
That the essence of Team Obama’s reelection strategy was to capitalize on his strength with what National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein calls “the coalition of the ascendant” had long been clear. Back in May, I wrote a cover story for this magazine laying out Chicago’s plan to focus laserlike on four key voting blocs: African-Americans, Hispanics, college-educated white women, and voters aged 18 to 29. At bottom, the Obaman theory of the case was that, despite the fragility of the recovery and the doubts many voters had about POTUS’s capacity to put America on the path to prosperity, the deft exploitation of coalition politics, together with the ruthless disqualification of Romney as a credible occupant of the Oval Office, could secure the president a second term. That in 2012, in other words, demographics would trump economics.
And so it did, as a glance at the exit polls confirms. Contrary to the assumptions of the Romney campaign, the electorate that turned out last Tuesday was more diverse than 2008’s, not less. Nationally, the white vote fell from 75 to 72 percent, while the share made up by blacks rose from 12.2 to 13 percent, by Hispanics from 8.4 to 10, by Asians from 2.5 to 3, by women from 53 to 54, and by 18-to-29-year-olds from 18 to 19 percent. Obama’s claim on each of those groups was overwhelming: 93 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of Latinos, 73 percent of Asians, 55 percent of the ladies, and 60 percent of the kids. And that all made the difference in the battleground states. Had it not been for Obama’s vast advantages with Hispanics, he would not have carried Colorado, Florida, or Nevada, and the same was true when it came to African-Americans in Virginia and Ohio. And had it not been for his margins with young voters and college-educated women, the races in Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire would have been razor-close rather than five-to-seven-point strolls in the park.
Now, make no mistake, Obama’s victory was by no means a landslide, a term impossible to apply to a contest in which an incumbent garners a lower percentage of the popular vote, a smaller number of raw votes, and fewer electoral votes than he snagged the first time around. But equally unmistakable was that Obama’s win was comprehensive and decisive. And taken together with the broad repudiation of Republicans, it endows the president with political capital to spend and more legislative leverage than he has had since 2009.
How Obama will now try to work his will is the subject of wide cross-party conjecture. On the right, it has always been an article of faith that, freed from the constraints imposed by the need to seek reelection, Obama would suddenly and wantonly lurch to the left, governing as the socialist/communist/fascist/anarcho-syndicalist/Black Panther he most surely is deep down in his heart of hearts. But this assessment is more than merely baseless and downright dopey. For all the effects of last Tuesday, the central fact of divided government remains unchanged. Which means that governance from the center—“building consensus and making the difficult compromises,” as Obama put it in his speech—will be required for anything to get done for at least the next two years.
And getting shit done—and not just any shit, but big shit, significant shit, the kind of shit that scholars will scrutinize with care and ideally marvel at—is what Obama has always been about. This is a president unusually focused in the present on what his legacy will be in the future. With Obama’s reelection, one foundational element of that legacy has been secured: the Affordable Care Act, which, had he been defeated, would not only likely have been repealed but retrospectively reduced to one of the causes of his loss. Now, with a second term ahead of him, among Obama’s paramount goals, say his advisers, is to add another glittering trophy to his mantle: at least one more domestic-policy reform tantamount in importance to near-universal health care.