It’s over, thank God. After months – years-- of polling and sniping, calculating and conquering, Americans have chosen Barack Obama to lead them "Forward!" for the next four years.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Obama told supporters in Chicago and those tuned in around the country “whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president.” Those listening might fairly ask, “What have you heard, Mr. President? What have you learned?”
Sour-grapes types may think the president learned just how far you can ride on personal popularity – that even though most people think the country is headed in the wrong direction, they don’t hold him accountable. That even though they dislike the president’s signature legislation, they will allow him more such “bold experimentation.” That even though they do not think he is the best candidate to nurture economic expansion, and that 59% of the electorate say that is their number one concern -- they will give him another shot. He might have learned how easy it is to blame his shortcomings on other people.
Cynics will think voters taught him that you can be caught campaigning on outright lies – like accusing Mitt Romney of outsourcing jobs – and go right on doing it because not everyone is paying attention. Or, that you can divide and conquer. That if middle class incomes spiral down and their lives become more difficult, you can blame rich people for not “doing their fair share.” And, that you can use the Oval Office to hand out targeted executive orders if a support group starts to flag. Hispanics looking glum? Throw them a one-year deportation holiday. Women not so cheerful? Issue an order forbidding gender-based violence. Voila!
A sourpuss might conclude that President Obama learned this: that winning was everything.
An optimist might hope instead that the president is somewhat chastened; that the 2 million vote edge that guarantees him four more years tells him Americans are divided and that he must tread softly. That having ten million fewer people vote for him this time around suggests that he has failed to address their number one issue: putting people back to work.
With luck he heard from small business owners who are stymied by the lava flow of rules and regulations flowing from the Obama White House. Perhaps he heard the discouraged woman who said she was “exhausted at defending” the president and who wondered “Is this my new reality?”
Hopefully, the diminished voter count taught the president to follow through on his unmet promises – not only to work with businesses to create jobs, but also to cut the deficit in half. He has talked about the need to reduce entangling regulations – the country is ready. He promised at the Democratic convention in 2008 to “protect Social Security for future generations”; Americans expect him to make good on that.
Perhaps Mr. Obama will reflect on the important (possibly pivotal) support role played by former President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s enduring popularity, in spite of being only the second-ever Commander in Chief to have been impeached, can be traced to his ability to work with the opposition and pass popular legislation such as welfare reform. Clinton is viewed as a moderate – someone who moved the country in a direction approved by most voters. They like him for it.
Another lesson Mr. Obama might take home from the election is that voters really do care about fiscal responsibility. Republicans now occupy 30 of the nation’s governors’ mansions, having just picked up at least one. (Washington’s vote has not yet been tallied.) On the home front, concerns about taxes and spending loom large, and voters see GOP leadership as trustworthy.
Republicans also learned some lessons of importance. Mr. Obama’s campaign brilliantly sliced up the American people, and then gobbled up one portion after another.
Women proved an easy mark, convinced early on that Mr. Obama would protect their interests while Mr. Romney was engaged in a “War on Women.” The Romney-Ryan ticket got clobbered by single women who worried about an attack on abortion rights and cheered free contraception.
Exit polling reported by the American Enterprise Institute reveal that 59% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most circumstances. Like gay marriage, this is an issue where attitudes are moving away from the GOP; adopting an aggressively anti-abortion platform will not help win elections.
If Republicans champion democracy, they must also embrace the will of the people in areas where they disagree. Though self-described conservatives (35% of the turnout) outnumber liberals (25%) only 82% voted for Romney. My guess: many disagreed with his stance on social issues.
Hispanics were another group that shunned the GOP ticket. This is a tragedy; as many have said, hard work and aspiration are essential to Hispanics – they should be voting Republican, but have been disenfranchised by the right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. As with abortion, sentiment is softening; exit polls revealed that 65% of voters think that illegals working in the U.S. should be offered a shot at legal status. Republicans like John McCain have led the search for a bipartisan solution to this issue; they need to get in front of the quest once again.
Both President Obama and Republican leaders understand the country is divided. Let us hope they can also understand that voters expect progress on those issues where the two sides might find consensus – on immigration, tax reform and on education, for instance. The mood of the country seems anything but celebratory; everyone knows there is turbulence ahead. We pray our pilot has learned a thing or two.