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.
But Ryan’s role on the ticket turned out to be an early indicator of which party had the upper hand. The great debate over entitlements and the role of the state turned out to consist, at least from the Republican end, of swaggering declarations that they wanted to have a debate. (Ryan: “We want this debate. We need this debate. We will win this debate.”) Ryan did launch an assault against Obama—from the left, lambasting him for having cut Medicare. After an initial star turn, the campaign whisked Ryan from the spotlight. Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Ryan! Catch him again when he returns in 2016!
Another clue came the night of Romney’s greatest triumph: the first debate, in Denver. Romney trounced Obama precisely because he refused to take up the ideological fight. Rather than argue for the freedom-restoring, incentive-jolting power of tax cuts, as he had before, Romney insisted he would not cut taxes for the rich at all and might even increase them. He presented his opposition to Obamacare not as a crusade against socialism but as a tweak, promising to provide insurance for people with preexisting conditions and reminding the audience of Romneycare, once his secret shame. The next night, in an interview on Fox News, he fully renounced his secretly recorded sneering at the 47 percent—the campaign’s most vivid expression of the makers-versus-takers philosophy—after having previously defended it as merely an inelegant expression.
It was a shrewd, necessary concession but one that demonstrated just how unwinnable Romney’s campaign grasped the larger argument to be. Romney pulled close to Obama in the polls precisely because he dulled the philosophical distinction, reducing the points of difference between him and the president to managerial competence and a superior knack for bipartisan negotiation. A wave of endorsements for Romney—by the Des Moines Register, David Brooks, Ross Douthat—explicitly hinged their support on the expectation that Romney would not carry out the program to which he had pledged himself. This was the furthest possible thing from winning a battle of ideas.
If there is a single plank in the Democratic platform on which Obama can claim to have won, it is taxing the rich. Obama ignored vast swaths of his agenda, barely mentioning climate change or education reform, but by God did he hammer home the fact that his winning would bring higher taxes on the rich. He raised it so relentlessly that at times it seemed out of proportion even to me, and I wrote a book on the topic. But polls consistently showed the public was on his side.
Obama’s goal was to prove to the GOP that their rigid defense of the richest one percent was political poison and to force them to bend. For now, at least, their same monomaniacal refusal to increase any taxes on the rich is leading Republicans to deny any connection between the tax issue and Obama’s victory. Numerous Republicans pointed last week to the party’s restrictionist immigration agenda as the source of its dismal performance with the growing (and increasingly Democratic) Latino bloc. But the party’s Latino problem does not rest with immigration law. Polls show that Hispanics are just plain liberal on the main role-of-government questions dividing the parties. More than three fifths want to leave Obamacare in place rather than repeal it; a mere 12 percent agree with the Republican position of closing the deficit entirely through spending cuts. The harsh truth that fend-for-yourself economic libertarianism is a worldview mainly confined to the shrinking, aging white electorate is a reality Republicans prefer not to acknowledge.
Republicans in Congress have been similarly intransigent. Americans “reelected our majority in the House,” Boehner asserted last week, and thus they “made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates.” Never mind that voters clearly indicated the opposite when asked directly by pollsters, or that the GOP’s continued House majority reflects its advantage in drawing up districts comfortably gerrymandered to its benefit.
Of course, what the people want is all fairly beside the point now. What matters in Washington is power and leverage—two things that accrued dramatically in Obama’s favor last week. But it’s not irrelevant that American voters had a chance to lay down their marker on the major social divide of our time: whether government can mitigate the skyrocketing inequality generated by the marketplace. For so many years, conservatives have endeavored to fend off such a debate by screaming “class war” at the faintest wisp of populist rhetoric. Somehow the endless repetition of the scare line inured us to the real thing. Here it was, right before our eyes: a class war, or the closest thing one might find to one in modern American history, as a presidential election. The outcome was plain. The 47 percent turned out to be the 51 percent.