President Barack Obama made history again, with a victory that defied a decades-long trend: Incumbents don't triumph when the economy remains in the doldrums and the public sentiment is one of unease. In an archly ideological race that pitted a progressive case for government against a conservative assault on government, the president, burdened by a slow recovery but bolstered by a brilliant ground game based on hard-and-fast demographic realities, beat back Mitt Romney, who embraced the tea-partyization of the Republican Party and campaigned (often in an ugly fashion) for the chance to be CEO of the United States.
The election, a close call for Obama, signaled that division is still rampant within the political culture. Yet in his victory speech before thousands in a Chicago convention hall, Obama spoke of the "difficult compromises needed to move this country forward." He insisted, "We are an American family, and we rise and fall together." Moments later, he strode across a confetti-drenched stage, as the PA played Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising." He had mounted something of a political resurrection.
This election was always going to be arduous for the president. Not since FDR had an incumbent commander in chief won reelection with unemployment so high. But after Obama's party took a drubbing in the 2010 congressional elections, the president concocted a strategy for retaining the White House. In the weeks after that election, he told his aides and advisers that they needed to turn the 2012 contest into a battle of values and visions—no matter whom the Republicans would nominate. The reelection fight, he and his aides believed, had to be transformed from a conventional referendum on the guy in office and his handling of the economy to a stark choice between Obama's aims and those of the GOP standard bearer.
So as the president racked up legislative victories (a tax cut compromise, ending the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, ratifying the New START arms control treaty) and then jousted with tea-party-driven congressional Republicans over the budget, the deficit, and the debt ceiling, Obama—displaying strategic patience—constantly endeavored to tether the tussle of the moment to a values-based message that emphasized the fundamental difference between him and the Rs: He wanted to preserve and use government as a communal force to fund investments in infrastructure, innovation, and education that would bolster the nation's economic prospects, raise taxes on the well-to-do to underwrite such efforts and ease the task of deficit reduction, and protect (if modify) the social safety; the other side believed in affording more power to the the markets, downsizing government, and handing greater tax breaks to the wealthy to juice up the economy.
These were two conflicting approaches. And congressional Republicans assisted Obama's efforts by embracing Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed budget that included draconian cuts in domestic programs, the abolition of the Medicare guarantee, and tax cuts for high-income Americans that went far beyond the George W. Bush trickle-down tax reductions.
There was indeed a choice. And Romney, once he became the de facto GOP nominee, reinforced Obama's narrative. He repeatedly described the election as a face-off between two alternative paths—claiming that Obama was intent on leading the nation into the wasteland of a European socialist, secular, government-centric society, and insisting that he, a lover of freedom, would guide the country into an age of dynamism, self-reliance, and economic growth spurred by freedom-loving entrepreneurs operating within free markets in a business environment without burdensome taxes and annoying regulations. Ideologues of the right and the left often huff that there is little that separates the major political parties. But in this campaign, each candidate found it in their interest to tie his core arguments to ideological stakes.
Romney did not ignore the it's-a-referendum line of attack. He repeatedly asserted that Obama had failed to revive the economy sufficiently and claimed he could do better, inflating his job-creating cred as a past CEO of Bain Capital. Still, Obama got the vision-and-values face-off he wanted. When Romney selected Ryan as his campaign soulmate, it sealed the deal. At the GOP convention in Tampa, Ryan delivered one of the most ideological addresses given by a nominee in recent years. He contended that Obama had turned the nation into Ayn Rand's worst nightmare—"the best this administration offers [is] a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us"—and essentially called for a right-wing revolution.
Following the convention, Romney did pivot to the center. Actually, it was closer to a reckless U-turn on a crowded highway at 60 miles per hour. After the release of his 47 percent rant reinforced the criticism he was an out-of-touch plutocrat who cared little for those who cannot afford dressage horses or health care, Romney quickly moved to sand down the rough edges of the hard-right stances on immigration, abortion, and gay rights he had peddled vigorously to win the nomination during the wild and wacky GOP primary contest. (On Election Day, an Obama adviser told me that in the weeks after the video was released, focus group participants who were undecided raised Romney's 47 percent remark on their own: "That's what they wanted to talk about.") And during the debates, Romney refused to fess up to key proposals, including his call for gargantuan tax cuts and his support for severe cuts in government programs. This undermined Obama's effort to present the election as a choice between two conflicting courses. But for months—most of the campaign—the president had succeeded in crafting the contest as a choice election.