A world still scarred by the horrors of the George W. Bush administration breathed a sigh of relief this morning when Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States of America. For all of its faults, the US is still by far the most important country on the planet and its politics are uniquely relevant to the rest of the world.
Obama gave a superb, uplifting victory speech which revived memories of the hope stirred by his first election. In doing so, he confirmed his status as the greatest English language orator since Dr Martin Luther King. Some of Obama’s opponents have contrasted his eloquence with a supposedly modest level of achievement. But rhetorical ability matters in a system where the President is the national figurehead, Commander, and cheerleader, in-Chief, as well as a political leader. And Obama’s first term achievements such as stabilising a disintegrating economy, instituting universal health care and ending the war in Iraq will be rated higher with historical hindsight than is presently the case. Amidst the morass of campaign verbiage, Vice-President Joe Biden snappily summed up why Obama deserved re-election when he declared that “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”.
There are times when US elections do not seem to matter much because they present a marginal choice between what Gore Vidal memorably called “two wings of the same Capitalist Party”. 2012 was not one of those occasions. In a time of global economic crisis and turmoil in the Middle East, the moderate, Democrat, wing of that one “Capitalist Party” is infinitely preferable to a Republican Party in thrall to the angry, incoherent head-bangers of the Tea Party tendency.
The Tea Party’s influence is the biggest reason why the Republican candidate, Governor Mitt Romney, lost this election. Romney felt compelled to spend months espousing extremist positions in order to win the support of his own side. Only in the final month of the campaign did he feel able to express the more considered conservative beliefs that seem to reflect his true self. This allowed him to gain ground on Obama by appealing to the swing voters in the centre ground of US politics that he had previously alienated. If he had felt able to do so consistently throughout the campaign, then the result of the election might have been even closer.
Obama magnanimously held out an olive branch to Romney in his victory speech by inviting him to work together for the benefit of America. Identifying common ground in a deeply divided country was the central theme of Obama’s speech and, ostensibly, finding a role for a man backed by 49% of the electorate would make sense. Romney’s business experience and solid record in public roles, such as salvaging the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and as Republican Governor of the usually Democratic state of Massachusetts, should, theoretically, be an asset in pursuing economic recovery and solving America’s fractured politics. But in the real world, Romney is unlikely to be attracted by a subordinate role after missing out on the top job. His authority, as the defeated Presidential candidate, over a Republican party that never really loved him would also be limited and of little use in healing the political divide.
Overcoming that political divide, which sees the Republicans hold onto their majority in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress, will remain Obama’s biggest challenge. There have been some conciliatory post-election statements from Republican leaders, notably their leader in the House, John Boehner, but on past form, these sentiments are unlikely to last until the morning. Nonetheless, Obama should call the Republicans’ bluff and work tirelessly during the first month of his new mandate to seek compromise with them on vital issues for the country. The impending struggle over the arcane but crucial issue of raising the budget deficit ceiling will provide the ideal test case.
Apart from Boehner, Obama’s outreach must target the new generation of Republican leaders such as Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio. They are increasingly influential advocates within their party of a more inclusive, less destructive brand of Republicanism. The defeated Vice-Presidential candidate and budget policy wonk, Paul Ryan, will also be significant but is, depressingly, more likely to become the de facto leader of the recalcitrants.
If the Republicans continue to put party before country by opposing all collaborative efforts to solve America’s problems, then Obama should feel liberated to forget compromise and enact, by any means necessary, as many as possible of his own solutions, based on the beliefs that drove him to seek office in the first place.
The time available to Obama is short. The crazed American political cycle of near permanent campaign means that he probably has 18-24 months to get anything done before his domestic authority begins to fade when the next Presidential race gears up. As the revitalised President of the world’s most politically, militarily and economically powerful country, we should all wish him luck.
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