Watching Barack Obama comfortably win reelection in 2012, after improbably winning in 2008, is almost enough to make one believe in capital-H History. After all, as late as January 1, 2004, Obama was an obscure Illinois state senator mounting an unlikely bid for the Democratic nomination for US Senate.
His opponents had better name recognition, and were backed by money and Chicago’s Democratic machine. Even if he won the Democratic nomination, the GOP had a charismatic millionaire businessman/inner-city-school teacher (with an Irish name to boot) set to contend for the seat. And yet Obama won that Senate seat, after his opposition seemed to melt away.
After serving less than a third of his Senate term, he began running for president—surely, many thought, just to raise his profile. But he went on to beat Hillary Clinton and the entire Democratic establishment for the nomination and then to crush war hero John McCain in the general election. Destiny?
In 2011, his reelection looked tough, too. Although personally well-liked by many, his party had suffered a devastating loss in the midterm election; unemployment was high; the economy anemic at best. But he beat Romney. So, was Obama’s presidency inevitable?
As tempting as it may be to answer that question in the affirmative, a new book reminds us that nothing in politics is predetermined. After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics, by James Ceaser, Andrew Busch, and John Pitney considers American politics, and the presidential election, as they really are.
In their telling, impersonal historical forces are an inadequate explanation for Obama’s win. The book is an excellent antidote to the obsessive Game Change-style coverage so often produced by work-a-day journalists. Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney situate the election in the larger context of American history, and show how reflection and choice, bounded by time and context, led to Obama’s reelection. After Hope and Change reveals a could-win election and a status-quo victory with some unclear consequences for the future of American politics.
A Could-Win Election
Most election books take the results for granted, analyzing the race in light of the outcome. But Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney argue that the 2012 election was a could-win election for the Republicans. Could is the key word.
They remind the reader that Obama enjoyed a “solid floor and hard ceiling of support, with not much room in between.” He never exceeded a 52.6% approval rating or dropped below 42%. This ceiling and floor moderated the ups and downs of the term, including a failed stimulus, the unpopular Obamacare overhaul, the downgrading of the US credit limit, a midterm shellacking, his well-received speech after the Giffords shooting, and the raid on Osama Bin Laden.
The authors excel at putting the election in perspective. For instance, Americans by and large reelect their presidents. Since 1896, only five incumbents have sought and lost reelection: Taft (1912), Hoover (1932), Ford (1976), Carter (1980), and George H. W. Bush (1992). In these cases, the incumbent either faced an intra-party primary challenge, a third-party challenger in the general election, or occupied the White House after a long period of his party’s dominance. “Obama enjoyed the incumbency advantages in 2012 without confronting any of these three weakening factors,” Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney write.
These facts should chasten post-election analysts who argue that Republicans or Mitt Romney threw away a sure thing. The election was winnable for Republicans, but it was always going to be a close race. Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney’s account of the Republican primary is especially hard reading for Republicans who probably want to forget the series of lackluster candidates they considered before finally settling for Romney.
Again, After Hope and Change succeeds where other accounts of elections fail. Some of these (e.g., Andrew Young’s The Politician) reported the downfalls of candidates with an I-always-knew-they-would-fail tone. But Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney remind us why these candidates enjoyed a limited appeal. After a drawn-out primary, Romney emerged as the tested winner. He honed his message and campaigning skills and was ready to face President Obama.
Romney chose to make the election a referendum on the economy. Sensible, as the economy is “a frequently cited reason why party control of the White House switches hands,” Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney explain. But Romney was a rich man—he made his money in finance, of all places—forced to defend capitalism. Republican primary challengers drubbed Romney for his past. Governor Rick Perry characterized Romney’s background as “vulture capitalism.”
Romney’s image worsened in the general election. While American voters thought Romney was a better leader, better executive, and could be better trusted to handle an international crisis than Barack Obama, they didn’t think he understood them. By appearing as a rich, out-of-touch businessman, Romney lost the empathy vote by sixty-three points.
Apart from his image problem, Romney’s strategy was incomplete. “It was not enough to point to unemployment figures, which were themselves improving,” the authors write. Romney “needed to offer an alternative explanation for the 2008 financial crises and make a case for why continuing economic troubles should be laid at Obama’s feet. This adaptation, however, would have forced him further into the uncomfortable terrain of ideas.”
The 2012 elections offered a “momentous choice wrapped inside a forgettable campaign.” At stake were the size of government and the direction of our nation. Democrats offered an expanded entitlement program, higher taxes, and more regulations in various sectors of the economy. Victory meant “protecting and expanding the Progressive agenda enacted in Obama’s first term.”
The Republicans, by contrast, represented a more limited vision: holding spending constant, fewer regulations, lower taxes, and more space for the free market to function. Defeating Obama could reverse his agenda.
But the Republicans were unable to articulate this argument in the election. Romney and the Republican establishment were “very nearly allergic to ideas.” Romney’s best moment was the first presidential debate, which Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney call the “best debate performance in the era of television.” Romney “commanded the stage.” He “stayed on message.” He succeeded in rebutting Obama’s caricatures of him. But he did not elaborate on the purpose of government or where the country was heading.
Obama also avoided a foray into ideas. 2008 was his ideas election: hope, change, and the soaring rhetoric of post-partisanship. In 2012, Obama just needed to hang on to the Oval Office to cement his policy agenda.
Obama ran a dirty, divisive, and ultimately risky campaign. He knew that he had ground to give. He could lose some votes from 2008 and still win. He carved up the electorate through targeted appeals to various demographics, convincing some to vote for him and others simply to stay home.
Most post-election analysis focuses on the voter share between Romney and Obama. How big is the gender gap or the marriage gap? The more intriguing vote share comparison is between the Obama of 2008 and the Obama of 2012. According to Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney, Obama in 2012 lost vote share in almost every demographic group: He dropped one point among women, four points among men, two points among African Americans, and three points among liberals and also among college graduates. Indeed, he gained vote share in only three groups compared to 2008: Hispanics, Asian Americans, and those without a high school degree.
In the Midwest, Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney explain, Obama successfully depressed turnout among the white working class voters, a group favorable to Republicans. Obama did not have to persuade these voters to vote for him to win; he just discouraged them into staying home and not voting for Romney.
The result: Obama’s victory was modest by historical standards. “President Obama made history in 2012 by getting reelected while losing vote share,” the authors explain. Typically, incumbents are reelected with a greater vote share. Incumbents who lose vote share typically lose the election. “Obama broke this pattern and found himself, from an electoral standpoint, in a weaker position in 2012 than 2008.”
Obama’s selective targeting was enough to lock in his first-term policy victories. The health care law and the large increase in federal spending would be locked into place, the authors predict, and “little would be done to address the growth of the entitlement state for at least four more years.”
The Future of American Politics
The 2012 election kept the status quo: the same president, Senate leadership, and Speaker of the House. What does this mean for the 2014 congressional election and the 2016 presidential election?
Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney argue that the 2012 elections provide little guidance for future races. The two most important factors in elections are not yet known: the candidates and how the governing party’s policies will be perceived.
The Republicans appear to have a stronger bench than the Democrats do, including several successful Republican governors, House members, and senators. But Democrats also have the advantage of a superior ground game: They identify and mobilize voters better than Republicans do.
The verdict on the policies could go either way. Implementing Obamacare is fraught with challenges: States refuse to set up insurance exchanges; the HHS mandate infringes on the freedom of conscience; healthcare costs continue to climb; and, after the latest revelations about the IRS targeting applicants for their political leanings, no one is eager to expand the IRS’s power. Will failures be seen as flaws inherent in the law and therefore Obama’s fault? Or will the failures be blamed on Republican sabotage?
For all the discussion of “makers” and “takers,” it’s also risky to try to build an electoral constituency on expanded entitlements. People may accept the entitlements as a right justly belonging to them and lack gratitude toward the party or politicians who created them. Or, people may see the entitlements as impositions on their liberty and the president who heads the expansive and expensive administrative state as an overbearing mother rather than a benevolent, empathetic father.
The larger question is: What effect will expanded government have on the American character? Will generations of big government level individual ambition? Such a question is beyond the scope of After Hope and Change, but at a Heritage Foundation event for the book, Heritage scholar Michael Franc argued that big government has indeed narrowed Americans’ ambitions. Ronald Brownstein of The National Journal reports that “most families now believe the most valuable—and elusive—possession in American life isn’t any tangible acquisition, such as a house or a car, but rather economic security.” Pew polls reveal that young Americans have delayed marriage and childbearing because of economic uncertainty, and more people now self-identify as being in the lower middle class.
All is not lost. Republicans need to close the empathy gap and counter the Democrats’ caricature of Republicans as out-of-touch. Conservatives already defend the men and women of great ambition (e.g., those who build businesses). As AEI’s Henry Olsen argues, they also need to connect with the American that Reagan once described as the “simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” Conservatives in particular need to communicate that they understand and respect the dignity of the average person—that they value their contributions even if the only thing they build is an addition on their house.
Obama’s reelection was not inevitable but it will be consequential. The federal government is expanding, and the argument for limited government has never been more vital. Republicans failed to make the case for limited government during the election. Maybe now is a good time to start.