Obama Beats Back the Right-Wing Tide

The president spent two years setting up this tough victory—turning the election into a stark ideological choice and crafting a brilliant ground game.

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.

Obama had, of course, been blessed with the good fortune of ending up with Romney as his foe. For much of the race, the former Massachusetts governor was a Grade B campaigner. Once a self-professed moderate, he had veered far to the right to win over the tea party, and he was carrying a trunkful of blatant flip-flops (some of which became flip-flop-flips). Obama's team had a tough time deciding whether to pounce on Romney for his crass situational politics or his newfound conservatism. But there was more: They were able to target his days as a private-equity profiteer who sought to "harvest" companies to benefit investors and, on occasion, exploit outsourcing overseas, rather than build or revive American businesses in a manner that would create jobs for the long run.

Romney lost the race to define himself—a strategic misstep that probably determined his fate. That was partly because there were so many different past and present Romneys for Romney to reconcile. His approval ratings always lagged. Polls routinely found that many Americans did not believe he truly cared about them and the challenges they face. No doubt, many voters were not satisfied with Obama's performance and yearned for another option. But they didn't like—or trust—Romney, even though polls often showed that many voters believed he could handle the economy better than Obama. Those pesky undecided voters appeared to confront a dilemma: Do I vote for the fellow I trust but who has disappointed me or the fellow I think might be able to do better but whom I don't trust? These voters may have wanted change and a candidate like Romney…but just not Romney himself. And Romney's often hapless campaign—which included insulting cookie makers and Olympics hosts—likely did not inspire confidence among undecideds (that is, if they were paying attention).

Obama's biggest obstacle—besides the sluggish economy—was of his own making. From the start of his presidency, he has not succeeded in a critical duty: selling his own accomplishments. After the 2010 shellacking, Obama and his crew readily admitted that they had failed miserably in persuading the general public that the stimulus, the health care overhaul, and Wall Street reform had been big winners. The refrain was: We were too busy enacting policies during a time of economic crisis (while managing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and neglected to engage in adequate promotion, but we'll do better. Then…they didn't.

After forcing the Republicans to accept a second stimulus—in return for assenting to a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the well-heeled—Obama won no credit from his own supporters, or anyone else, for this progressive win. The fact that he lowered taxes for most taxpayers has gone unrecognized by a majority of Americans. And most voters went to the polls knowing little of the benefits of Obamacare. At the infamous first debate, the president failed to be his own best advocate and, worse, allowed Romney an unimpeded opportunity to present himself as a white knight who could rescue the economy.

Obama and his campaign have done a better job selling the choice than his own record. In Washington, he repeatedly lost the message war. On the campaign trail, he didn't talk a great deal about the successful stimulus or health care reform. Yet he did refer often to his rescue of the auto industry—a true defining difference with Romney—and that certainly won him the Midwest, which guaranteed his success. (He also mentioned the bin Laden raid.) And message wasn't everything. Obama's reelection crew, headed by Jim Messina, pulled together an impresive field operation that will be studied by politicos and political scientists for years to come. Many of the final state tallies were within a tenth of a point of the the campaign's razor-thin estimates. Midway through Election Day, several Obama aides told me they had had but one concern: that there would be a bump in GOP turnout that they had not foreseen. No such uptick occurred.

For Romney's part, he did a poor job of selling himself for most of the campaign—until he went into shape-shifting overdrive at that first debate. For months, he seemed pinned down by his own efforts to court the right. At the Tampa convention, a Romney adviser told me that Romney campaign has become "preconditioned" to placating conservatives. "They were in that mode for a year during the primaries and can't get out of it."

As part of the effort, Romney played footsie with the (often racialized) excesses of the Obama Hate Machine. He hugged Donald Trump, the nation's No. 1 birther. His chief surrogate, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, called Obama "lazy" and said he wished the president would "learn how to be an American." Romney hurled the false charge that the president had weakened welfare rules to help his base. (Get it?) He often declared that Obama did not understand the United States or its exceptional qualities—and that he apologized for it. The Republican candidate shied away from outright birtherism, but embraced otherism. He accused the Obama administration of sympathizing with terrorists and enemies of the United States after the attacks in Benghazi. He scoffed at traditions of transparency, refusing to release his taxes or identify his chief fundraisers (or release key details of his economic plan). And through it all, Romney waged a campaign predicated on fundamental lies, closing with brazenly false ads that were denounced by the chief executives of GM and Chrysler. (Wasn't Romney supposed to be business-friendly?)

Romney could have run a high-road, policy-oriented campaign that touted his past as a moderate governor who pragmatically tackled tough issues (read: Romneycare). Instead, he went with the muck. And the muck just wasn't enough—not when the demographics were turning against the GOP and not when its nominee could not escape the extremism of his own party or the corporate excesses of his own past. A GOP candidate with less baggage and a defter touch could have vanquished Obama. The Republicans blew their opportunity and can thank the tea party. (No doubt, in the coming civil war within the party's ranks, some Rs will argue the party didn't go far right enough.)

Obama's success did not mark an end to political wars of the United States. The pundit pooh-bahs will be quick to remind all that the country remains bitterly divided—as it heads toward the fiscal cliff. (Romney's concession speech included only a brief and tepid call to put aside "partisan bickering.") And extreme voices on the right will no doubt continue to question Obama's legitimacy. (It took Trump nanoseconds after the election was called to throw a tweet-tantrum: "This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!") The challenges of Obama's second term will be daunting, the opportunities for progress (and compromise) limited. But Obama, coolly sticking to his long-term plan and bare-knuckling when necessary—held back a nasty and reactionary tide. That in itself is a historic triumph.