On November 6, the maths trumped the myth. As that date approached, two competing, and directly conflicting, narratives had emerged from the Democrats and the Republicans.
The Democrats repeatedly pointed to President Barack Obama’s steady, albeit small, lead in the polls in the key battleground states. The Republicans cited national polls favouring their nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as well as more esoteric “data” allegedly evidencing far less enthusiasm for President Obama among his core constituencies and a groundswell of support for Governor Romney. Both sides appeared confident of victory.
The steady lead in the polls in the key battleground states that President Obama had maintained was ultimately confirmed by what happened on Election Day. Indeed, he performed even better than had been expected. President Obama won Virginia and is likely to be declared the winner in Florida. Polls indicated that both of these states had favoured Governor Romney. If Obama does win Florida, then his margin of victory in 2012 will mirror, bar typically Republican Indiana and North Carolina, his landslide victory over Senator John McCain in 2008.
So despite not having delivered on many of the promises he made as a candidate in 2008, President Obama has been granted a second term by the voters. What challenges will he face on the domestic and global stages over the next four years? The challenges are myriad. I’ll address three on the domestic stage and two on the global stage.
At home, the looming issue for the president is the huge package of tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect on January 1, 2013. Public and private sector economists warn that this would push the US off a “fiscal cliff” if it were to take effect.
My strong suspicion is that the congressional leadership of both parties, given the imminent deadline they face, will get together and devise a “band aid” solution to minimise the threat of a deep(er?) recession. The challenge for President Obama, however, is far more profound than dealing with this single package of spending cuts and tax increases.
The US is spending itself into oblivion. This spending quite simply cannot continue. To prevent what would certainly prove a catastrophe with devastating consequences for the entire western world, President Obama has to engage, to a much greater extent than he did in his first term, with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. That they are every bit as polarised as has been widely reported makes his task that much more difficult.
Republican leaders must accept that wealthy people are going to have to pay more in taxes and that present levels of military spending need to be dramatically lowered. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, will have to be made to recognise that spending on entitlement programmes, such as Social Security, is unsustainable and will have to be reined in.
Getting the Congress to act affirmatively to guarantee the future solvency of the US is the single most important challenge the president faces. He will have to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to force largely unwilling stakeholders with diametrically opposed views to accept the unpalatable and to meet somewhere in the middle. President Obama has to get “down and dirty.”
A second challenge the president faces at home stems from the clear divisions in the US and the incredibly shrinking middle ground of American politics. President Obama is supported by young people, minorities, women and those who live on the coasts. He is opposed by white men, the wealthy, southerners and those who live in America’s heartland. Leading a country – stylistically and substantively – that is so clearly divided along a number of different lines is simultaneously a complex and a thankless endeavour.
In his victory speech, President Obama alluded to these divisions and promised to help reconcile them. How he will do so remains to be seen, yet it must begin with him. The president needs to start working right away with Democrats and with Republicans to come up with concrete proposals to address the problems faced by the US. These proposals should respect their diversity of views and backgrounds, representative as they are of the American people, but the proposals must be solutions, not mere window dressing.
A third challenge is one that wasn’t much alluded to by either President Obama or Governor Romney during the campaign. And it might be the most vexing of them all. The truth is that today’s young people are the first ever Americans who aren’t likely to have it better than their parents did. College and university tuitions are staggering; many blue collar jobs have been shipped overseas; public sector jobs are rapidly vanishing as federal, state and local governments no longer have resources to hire qualified people.
There is no easy way to respond to the reality that young Americans face a very uncertain future. President Obama, however, needs to be mindful of it at every step. And inspirational, impassioned speeches about America being the land of opportunity and the greatest nation on the planet are not enough.
Internationally, as a top priority, President Obama must deal with the Middle East. Onlookers around the world heralded his election in 2008 because they believed he might be uniquely credentialed to help facilitate a resolution to the long-raging conflict there. In his first four years, though, President Obama has been anything but bold in his engagement with leaders in the Middle East.
Iran presents a problem of infinite complexity. It is obviously not in the interests of any western nation for Iran to have nuclear weapons. Preventing it from doing so – especially when whatever moral authority the US had has been greatly diminished by the Bush administration – may prove impossible. It is somewhat comforting that the president prefers a diplomatic strategy than the alternative that Governor Romney’s hawkish language hinted at.
Moreover, many outside the US initially believed that President Obama would question the prevailing orthodoxy within the US that Israel can do no wrong. His first term was undoubtedly a disappointment for them. In his second, the creation of a Palestinian state that respects Israel’s right to exist is worth pursuing.
The second challenge, one that didn’t feature heavily in his re-election campaign, is to define what America’s role on the global stage will be. Although the two political parties are internationalist and interventionist in their outlook, there is a pronounced rise in neo-isolationist sentiment in the US. The rise in this sentiment, fuelled in no small part by the failed policies of the Bush administration, has doubtless played a role in President Obama’s caution to date.
President Obama is fortunate to get a second term. His first term did not live up to the promise of his candidacy. The economy remains stagnant. And substantial problems – those aforementioned and many others – persist. He must act quickly and decisively. A second term frees him, in one way, from political pressure in that he doesn’t have to worry about campaigning for re-election. But it also means that he will soon be a lame duck.
In the end, President Obama has a second term to establish his place in history. Was the worldwide euphoria upon his election in 2008 justified, or was it simply a “feel good” moment? The next eighteen months will tell the tale. I’m hopeful.
Larry Donnelly, a Bostonian, is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and Legal Counsel to Democrats Abroad Ireland.