Elections of 2008 and 2012

Candidates

2008
Barack Obama (365 Electoral Votes)
John McCain (173 Electoral Votes)

2012
Barack Obama (332 Electoral Votes)
Willard Mitt (Romney 206 Electoral Votes)

I am old enough to remember segregation and the last years of the long struggle to abolish it. (Please don’t do the math.) My current home state (now one of the bluest of the blue states) only repealed its segregation laws in the early 1960s. In the state of my birth, de facto segregation was almost universally practiced until I was an adolescent. As a Catholic grammar school student in 1964 (put that calculator down now!), I read a remarkable cartoon series about a fictional candidate for president in a juvenile magazine called Treasure Chest. The cartoon hid the face of its candidate, Tim Pettigrew, until the very last page as he walks to the podium at his party’s convention to accept its presidential nomination. The big revelation was, of course, that Tim Pettigrew was a black man. (The Catholic University archives have made the entire series available in digitized form at: http://cuomeka.wrlc.org/archive/files/0487a1750455f11466b857ae3b9ea76b.pdf.) It says a great deal about the times (or my own lack of imagination) that throughout the ten episodes of this series, I had never guessed the conclusion. I was absolutely thrilled and inspired by the surprise ending. By 2008, I had been waiting for more than forty years for this story to come true.

Barack Obama first came to the attention of a broader public as the first African American to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review. In 2004, as an Illinois state senator and candidate for the United States Senate, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His eloquent address, with its emphasis on diversity of the American experience and his personal heritage (“My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya… [My mother] was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas.”), the common acceptance of core American values within that diversity (“what allows us to pursue our individualdreams, yet still come together as a single American family”), its denunciation of divisive forces (“the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes”), and its stirring peroration to unity (“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America… We are one people”), became an instant classic of American oratory. Obama won a landslide victory in his Senate race that fall (70 percent of the vote against a black Republican opponent), and also won a place on the short list of presidential “mentionables.”

Senator Obama took a huge gamble by declaring his candidacy for the presidency in the very next election, even before he had served a full term in the Senate. He faced a formidable group of opponents for the Democratic nomination, especially New York Senator (and former First Lady) Hillary Clinton and 2004’s Democratic vice presidential nominee, John Edwards. The race eventually settled into a taut two-way contest between Obama and Clinton. Obama’s unsurpassed field organization allowed him to enter the convention with a small but firm majority of the delegates, becoming the first African American to secure a major party nomination. (At the same time, Hillary Clinton absolutely distinguished herself in defeat, and Obama quickly selected her as secretary of state after he won the presidency in November.)

Obama’s opponents in the general election were Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war with a reputation as a maverick among the (gullible?) press corps, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who proved (even more than Dubya) to be a charismatic but polarizing figure. The campaign appeared to be close until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers threatened to set off a cascading collapse of the financial system. McCain responded unsteadily, announcing that he would suspend campaigning, postpone the first presidential debate, and return to Washington until the crisis was resolved. Obama’s coolly responded that he intended to continue campaigning, on the grounds that presidents should be able to handle more than one matter at a time. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin energized raucous Republican rallies with scathing denunciations of Obama that evoked no little share of hostile and even racist responses from her audiences. (In this writer’s opinion, the Tea Party movement that seemed to appear so suddenly in the summer of 2009 actually began informally in the reaction of these crowds to Palin’s rhetoric during the fall of 2008.)

Obama won a decisive victory in both the Electoral College and the popular vote. On January 20, 2009, yours truly simultaneously celebrated the realization of his dream and his birthday with 2 million of his closest friends crowded onto the Washington Mall. (Tsk, tsk, don’t ask.)

President Obama entered office under the most difficult domestic circumstances since Franklin Roosevelt. Despite the need for decisive action to deal with the economic crisis, Obama faced an intransigent Republican opposition in Congress: the Senate majority leader, the unctuous Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, actually announced that his priority was to make Obama a one-term president. Against almost unanimous Republican opposition, Obama was able to use large Democratic majorities in Congress to finalize an automobile bailout plan initiated by George Bush, as well as to pass a massive (but still insufficient) package of spending and tax cuts to stimulate the economy, meaningful but limited financial reforms, a sweeping (but certainly not radical) reform of the health care system, and legislation allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military. But the health care bill became the flashpoint for dramatic confrontations and protests, especially at congressional town hall meetings, instigated by the new “Tea Party” movement during the summer of 2009. Sarah Palin, among many others, charged that the bill contained a “death panel” provision that would allow bureaucrats to withhold treatment from elderly or chronically ill people. At the risk of beating a dead (ahem) horse, this is Palin’s original statement, which she has never disavowed, despite being resoundingly and repeatedly refuted by people who actually know what they were talking about:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

(Dear reader, decide for yourself wherein the evil actually resides.)

Along with his domestic accomplishments, Obama fulfilled his promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq and to establish a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. But by that summer of 2009, it had become clear that the original euphoria over Obama’s election among one part of the population was in danger of being overwhelmed by a ferocious backlash from another part. This backlash not only stood resolutely (and often, as in the case of Palin, mendaciously) against Obama’s policy initiatives, but also featured an almost unprecedented (with the possible exception of Bill Clinton) level of vitriolic personal attacks against Obama, who was variously accused of being one or more of the following: a non-citizen (despite all documentary evidence to the contrary), a socialist (which made real socialists laugh out loud), a secret Muslim (which was apparently a secret even from Obama himself), an anti-colonialist (George Washington wasn’t?), a friend of terrorists (who ordered the death of Osama bin Laden??), and generally anti-American (which alone provided ample material for the study of psychological projection). Meanwhile the economy sputtered along, struggling to sustain a recovery from the deep recession that had begun with the financial crisis of late 2010. The midterm elections of 2010 were a disaster for Obama and the Democrats, as their diverse constituency failed to turn out at the levels of 2008, while conservatives turned out in droves. The Democrats lost 64 seats and control of the House, and barely retained control of the Senate.

Almost everyone agreed at the beginning of 2012 (most especially, perhaps, his own nervous supporters) that Obama was in real danger of being defeated for reelection, especially because the economy’s recovery continued to sputter along. As it turned out, Obama had the good fortune so often displayed by Bill Clinton: excellent political judgment in his choice of enemies. The Republican nomination campaign featured (with the possible exception of the marginal Jon Huntsman) a collection of candidates determined to prove their bona fides along the political spectrum from far right to far, far right. The eventual Republican nominee, Willard Mitt Romney, was forced to disavow his moderate record as governor of liberal Massachusetts (“I was a severely conservative Republican governor”) in general, and specifically his signal accomplishment in Massachusetts, passing a health care reform bill that had become the model for the hated “Obamacare.” (This term had originated among Tea Party conservatives as a slur against Obama’s health care reform. Obama’s characteristically cool—but sadly belated—response: “I have no problem with people saying Obama cares. I do care.”)

By the time he had secured the nomination, Romney had taken “severely conservative” positions on immigration, taxes, national security, and every other prominent issue. His attempt to re-reinvent himself as a moderate in the fall campaign (“It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch,” said one of his top advisers. “You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”), seemed to be having some success when he dominated an uncharacteristically lethargic Obama in their first debate. But the efforts of some Republican state officials to make voting more difficult for Democratic constituencies, an avalanche of negative advertising sponsored by anonymous wealthy Republicans allied with Romney, and a series of increasingly mendacious official political advertisements from the Romney campaign itself seemed to shake the 2008 Obama coalition out of its lethargy. (In the opinion of this Ohio native, Romney lost the crucial state of Ohio by running one false advertisement too many—accusing automobile companies that had benefited from Obama’s automobile bailout of moving jobs from the United States to China. The only little problem was that the ad’s Ohio audience, with its extensive connections to the automobile industry, already knew that this claim was false, and several automobile executives publicly denounced its dishonesty.) The turnout of African Americans, Hispanics, other minorities, young people, and women matched or exceeded their turnout in 2008. Their support for Obama also matched or exceeded the levels of 2008. The increasingly powerful Hispanic community supported Obama over Romney by almost 3 to 1.
As a result, Obama won a surprisingly convincing victory with over 51 percent of the popular votes and 332 electoral votes. Characteristically, Romney had apparently been so confident of victory that he had not even bothered to prepare a concession speech in advance, and it took over an hour and a half after the results were clear before he conceded defeat. Apparently, a small part of Obama’s ancestry on his mother’s side is Irish. (See http://www.origins.net/help/resarticle-obama.aspx.) If so, O’Bama seems to have inherited the proverbial luck of the Irish.

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