WASHINGTON, D.C., November 7, 2012 — The bitterness following today’s election is likely to be deep. President Obama won reelection convincingly in the electoral vote, but at this writing, Romney is very slightly ahead in the popular vote. Whether or not that holds, the country is very closely divided.
It’s unlikely that either side will attempt to close the divisions that split the country by being gracious in victory or defeat. The tone of triumphalism from the left is already loud and building, and the Republican House won’t be in a mood for compromise. Harry Reid already made it clear that there will be no compromise from the Senate. That was directed at a potential Romney Administration, but Obama’s reelection won’t make him less bitterly partisan in dealing with GOP senators or the House.
The Obama campaign has helped increase the odds of deeper division in his second term. His campaign was unrelentingly and crudely negative, not the sort of campaign Republicans will easily forget. If he had a popular mandate, they might grit their teeth and play nice, but he has none. Nor is he likely to build one between now and inauguration day. That would require actively building bridges to the half of the country that voted against him, but he preemptively burned those bridges during the campaign. It’s unlikely that he’ll find the humility to try to lay foundations for new ones.
Obama further hurt his chances at building a constructive second term by running a campaign remarkably devoid of an agenda. “I need four more years to finish the job” isn’t an action plan, and what he had was aimed at his own Democratic base. He didn’t present any grand vision for a second term, or even a moderately big one. What he promised was more of the same, and that, unfortunately, is what we’re likely to get.
Obama faces some serious problems in his second term. One of the biggest is the mounting national debt. If he doesn’t do anything to bring it under control, the fragile economic gains of the last year won’t last. He doesn’t need to aim for German-imposed Greek-style austerity, but there’s no way he can even begin to address the debt crisis by raising taxes on “the rich.” If he’s unwilling to make deep and meaningful cuts in spending, he’ll have to raise taxes on the non-rich part of the country.
The debt won’t be solved without Republican cooperation. Period. Obama will have to find a way to bring Republicans on board. That will mean making meaningful gestures to GOP leadership, not simply trying to peel one or two Republican senators away to claim a fig leaf of bipartisanship, not simply tacking some Republican ideas onto his program to claim that he’s doing what the Republicans themselves want.
In Obama’s favor is the fact that expectations for him now will be much lower than they were four years ago. The bar is sufficiently lowered that if he simply avoids a major disaster, his administration might be judged a moderate success in 2016.
The presidential result wasn’t at all surprising, but there were other races around the country. Most of them offered little surprising, either. But even when they weren’t surprising, some races were still baffling, and one was simply, predictably stunning.
Jesse Jackson Jr. won his race for reelection to the House of Representatives. His Illinois district returned him to the House with almost 70 percent of the vote. This is in spite of the fact that Jackson has avoided any contact with the voters or the press for months, spending his time in a clinic, in seclusion, and simply out of sight.
Jackson’s reelection is absurd. The voters of his district are either complete idiots or sheep. They voted for a man who’s done nothing for months, who’s apparently suffering from psychological problems, who’s under a criminal investigation for financial improprieties including the use of federal funds to redecorate his home, and whose only achievement has been to choose a famous and politically well-connected father.
If his reelection is absurd, it was also completely predictable. Jackson represents Illinois, after all. That kind of mindless voting is part of what’s wrong with American politics, and in Illinois it’s simply gone to its logical, corrupt extreme. It’s unfortunately welded to the identity politics of race.
The white vote nationwide went for Romney, the minority vote for Obama. The reality of America is that minorities are becoming the majority, and Republicans can’t win a national election with just the white vote. But Obama can’t afford to be the president of racial and ethnic identity groups. Jesse Jackson Jr. can afford to be the black representative of a black constituency who will stick with him and the party no matter what, but the president has to cross these boundaries or see his electoral success vanish in political failure.
So, will the tone of the second Obama Administration be narrowly partisan and divisive, or will it be national and conciliatory? The odds on the second don’t look good, but Obama can change and we can hope. Hope and change are always popular in America.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He looks for silver linings, but the problem with silver linings is that they always come with dark clouds in front of them. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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