A More Impressive Win Than in 2008, and a More Important One

I was up very late last night and have been out of reach of the info-sphere until just now today. So I don't know whether what I'm about to say is, on the one hand, already conventional wisdom -- or on the other, thoroughly debunked. Or in between. But for what it's worth:

Barack Obama's election four years ago was, by definition, more historic than his reelection last night.

But his second win last night was more impressive than his first, and probably more important.

Why was it more impressive?

  • Marriage vs. first date. It was more impressive because he had to run this time as the candidate of half-a-loaf, compromised, you-know-the-goods-and-bads-of-me reality than as the vessel of unbounded, defined-upward-by-each-observer hope.

  • Economic headwinds vs. tailwinds. It was more impressive because four years ago the world economic collapse, plus the rubble of the Bush administration, pulled the John McCain campaign down -- beyond McCain's own mistakes and limitations. This time economic problems were Obama's burden rather than part of his rationale.

  • 'We gave those people a chance.' It was more impressive because of the change in racial dynamics. Among non-whites, any "disappointment" in Obama may have been offset by what Ta-Nehisi Coates has often described: the greater importance for African-Americans of a re-election for this president even than of his getting there the first time. (And in any case, black support was overwhelming both times, and Latino support seems to have risen because of the GOP's anti-immigrant madness.) But very shrewd Republican messaging -- "You tried. He tried. It isn't working" -- appealed to many white voters' sense that they had proved their color-blindness by voting for him once. No one would think worse of them for deciding that the experiment had failed.

And how could it be more important -- apart from the obvious effect of doubling the span of years in which Obama can expect to influence policy?

  • Effect on collective memory. As I argued earlier this year, we tut-tut presidents who care too much about re-election. But in fact a re-election run affects everything about how we view their entire tenure. Defeat casts a retrospective air of failure on everything they did, including the successes (e.g. Jimmy Carter with China normalization and Camp David.) Victory makes even the mistakes seem like mere bumps in the road. Everything about Obama's approach to policy and politics will now be seen through this prism: yes, he had a mid-term setback in 2010, like those that Clinton and Reagan endured, but his strategies led to a 300+ electoral vote resounding win.

  • Learning on the job. I also argued in that previous piece that every new president "fails" at some part of the job he takes on, simply because no real human being has the range of skills required for all-fronts success in the presidency. The only sensible question, then, is whether a president learns and improves. I argued a few months ago that Obama is improving and would be a stronger second-term president than in his first. I still think that.

  • The Party itself. For the first time in my conscious life, the Democratic party is now more organized and coherent, and less fractious and back-biting, than the Republicans. It is almost stupefying to imagine that.

    But think about the facts: We've now had four of the past six presidential elections won by Democrats. In five of the past six, the Democrat has won the popular vote. The most effective advocate for the current Democratic incumbent was the previous Democratic president. The current president's toughest rival in the primaries is now his Secretary of State, and another former rival is his vice president. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the nominee dared not even mention the existence of the previous Republican president. His rivals in the primary were tepid at best in shows of support. Democrats now disagree about a lot, from their relationship with Wall Street to the ethics of drone wars. But they are a more coherent whole than through most of their recent history -- and much more coherent than the Republicans.

  • Obamacare. Passing it was difficult, divisive, and important. Letting it take effect -- which was one of the clearest differences between the implications of a second Obama and a first Romney term -- will permanently change the American social contract. I remember, as a school child, the hyper-bitter controversies about the socialist menace of Medicare, before Lyndon Johnson "rammed it down the country's throat" in 1965. Obviously now the only political risk is seeming to oppose Medicare. Something similar will be true about these further steps toward universal coverage once they go into effect.

  • What economics can mean for politics. Without belaboring the case, most people expect the next four years to be better economically than the past four. At a minimum, Obama won't see many millions of jobs disappear in the first six months of his term. In political terms, a rising economy inevitably tends to validate the policies in place when it occurs. (Skeptical? Think of terms like "the Reagan boom.") Presiding over a better four years will give Obama an object lesson for talking about the importance of investment, public-private partnerships, "growing from the middle," etc. -- as they did for Bill Clinton. Presiding over those years would have given Mitt Romney a Reagan-like opportunity to talk about the prime-mover virtues of tax cuts.

  • The Supreme Court. When the campaign memoirs come out, maybe we'll get an explanation for why neither side was saying "Supreme Court! Supreme Court! Supreme Court!" at every stop. The fact is that the past two Democratic presidents gave us Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The past two Republican presidents gave us Justices Souter, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito. Elections matter, and this one will, with four members of the Court now in their 70s.

There's more, but that is my reaction the morning-after. Plus,the surprising impact of seeing all these names on the list of Senators in the 113th Congress. Few of these would have seemed to be complete gimmes earlier this year, and many would have seemed implausible long-shots: Tammy Baldwin (!), Sherrod Brown, Joe Donnelly, Martin Heinrich, Heidi Heitkamp (!!), Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Claire McCaskill, Chris Murphy, Debbie Stabenow, John Tester (!!!), Elizabeth Warren.


Sorry for many sleepiness-induced typos in first version of this piece, including "Dana" Stabenow. Sorry. She's a mystery writer.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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