The Obama mandate

His reelection -- maybe more remarkable than his first -- is a win for using government to improve people's lives

Published November 7, 2012 4:04AM (EST)

       (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster/Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

President Obama's reelection represents a victory for the Democratic ideal of activist government and a mandate for more of it. From the stimulus through the auto rescue through Obamacare and, finally, Hurricane Sandy, Americans saw the Democratic president making a difference in their lives, and after a campaign that was stunning in its ugliness, they gave Obama a second term and sent Mitt Romney home, wherever that is.

It's no accident that Obama's firewall became Ohio, with an assist from Wisconsin and Iowa. These states swung right in 2010 when economic help didn't come fast enough. But as the auto rescue kicked in and unemployment declined, those voters returned to the Democratic fold. The president did much better with white working-class voters in those states than he did around the country. Union households went overwhelmingly to the president.

Unbelievably, Obama increased both  the turnout and his share of the vote among African-Americans. He increased his edge with Asians and Latinos as well. According to exit polls, the white share of the electorate ticked down another point to 73 percent, and Obama's edge with non-whites, as well as Romney's failure to run up his margin with them, gave the president the race. Obama knitted together enough of the old New Deal coalition as well as the emerging Democratic coalition of non-whites, women and the college-educated to win decisively.

The improving economy made a huge difference in the Obama victory, with the Democrats' decision to emphasize women's issues, especially on the heels of idiotic remarks about rape from Republicans, almost as important. Republicans as well as centrist Democrats still haven't gotten the extent to which women's issues are also economic issues. The battle over the contraception mandate brought home the pocketbook benefits of Obamacare, which the president mainly hadn't managed to sell until that controversy. Making sure that being a woman is no longer a preexisting condition, in Nancy Pelosi's words, is an economic boon to women, not merely a moral or cultural one.

Paul Ryan was a disastrous V.P. pick, not even giving Romney his home state of Wisconsin. (But Romney can't really complain; he lost both his home states of Michigan and Massachusetts, as well as his vacation home state of New Hampshire.)  Again, he married right-wing anti-women positions on choice and contraception to an equally conservative and unpopular budget plan. It's hard to sort out the importance of cultural issues vs. economic issues in Ryan's unpopularity; both mattered a lot.

Big victories for progressives like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Ohio's Sherrod Brown bode well for progressive populism in the Senate. Trading Joe Lieberman for Chris Murphy in Connecticut changes the ideological balance as well. Still, the sweetest victories Tuesday night may be the losses of the rape caucus, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, along with sexist lout Rep. Joe Walsh in Illinois. Their cruelty will not be missed.

Republicans are already blaming Hurricane Sandy for "stalling" Mitt Romney's supposed momentum, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for his traitorous embrace of the president. That's silly, but Sandy mattered nonetheless. Two-thirds of voters in the New York Times exit poll said Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy factored into their vote, and they went 70 percent for the president. The response to Hurricane Sandy was one long Obama commercial, a documentary that could be set to Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own," but a sincere version, not a sardonic one.

On Fox Bill O'Reilly went predictably nuts, lashing out at Christie but also at the Obama coalition. “The white establishment is now the minority,” O'Reilly said. “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama's way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

“The demographics are changing,” O'Reilly added. “It’s not a traditional America anymore.” He went on to say that a majority of Americans are people who "want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it.”

The only reason the election was a squeaker was voter suppression in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. The long lines to vote, especially in minority neighborhoods, represent a 21st century poll tax, and should horrify all Americans. If Democrats were as unethical as Republicans, they'd look for ways to suppress the older white vote. Instead, all of us should look for ways to make it easier for everyone to vote. Democrats don't have to cheat to win.

The reelection of our first black president may be more remarkable than his first win, given the implacable opposition he faced from Republicans and racists (they aren't the same thing, even if it seems like it sometimes). In the end, Romney's contempt for half the country, as revealed in his 47 percent remarks, brought many Americans together behind a man who wants to be the president of all of us. When I saw his tears Monday night, I worried that it meant he'd learned bad news, but maybe he knew he was going to win, after four years of demonization. He tweeted his campaign slogan, "We're all in this together," to his followers after his win. Let's hope some Republicans listen this time.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Barack Obama Mitt Romney Obama Reelection