The Day After
Four scenarios for the next four years
Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Of less historic moment but greater interest, Obama’s victory will also settle his ongoing rivalry with Bill Clinton. The theme of the Obama campaign of 2008, Hope and Change, was meant not just as a rejection of George Bush’s policies, but also those of Bill Clinton. Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton for the nomination added a personal -element to the rivalry, sending Bill for a time to his tent to brood like a postmodern Achilles. Now fast forward to August this year, when President Obama, sensing some vulnerability in his race, asked Bill Clinton to be a featured speaker at the Democratic convention. Appearing back-to-back on the last two nights, Clinton gave a far better defense of the Obama presidency than the president was able to give himself. In bestowing his blessing on Obama, Clinton did not fail to extract a small measure of revenge, stating that “no president, not [even] me . . . could have repaired all the damage” in four years. Still, whatever Clinton’s popularity, an Obama victory guarantees that he will overshadow Clinton in the history books. Obama took the big risk in his first term, refused to play it safe or back off, and he won.
It is fair to ask why a result in which a president loses political strength compared to his first election merits the name of Vindication. After all, other presidents—Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush—increased their margin of victory between their first and second campaigns. But the “meaning” of an election is a political concept. It must be calculated not in absolute terms, but in how it is viewed at the time and plays in the current context. Given the state of the economy, this race began with the assumption, shared by political analysts and the public, that Obama could never equal his margin over John McCain in 2008. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to keep the core of his 2008 coalition, while allowing a drop off of a couple of points. It would be a slight retreat, but with the essential asset safeguarded.
More important, the terms defining the meaning of this election were set by mutual agreement of the two parties in the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans judged their stunning victory to be a repudiation of Barack Obama. Obama viewed it as a small setback to the great mandate of 2008, a proverbial “bump in the road.” Each side dug in—neither had the power to do more—and both accepted that the competing claims to represent the wishes of the American people could only be settled by another election. Politics over the past two years has been about marking time, getting ready for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Vindication means that this contest has been resolved. The understanding of relevant contemporary history—the so-called dominant narrative—has been decided in favor of 2008. A modest Obama victory negates the claim of 2010. Yes, the Republicans still have their majority in the House, but the Democrats, if not the president himself, will say that the 2010 elections were nothing more than a bunch of idiot Tea Partiers getting in the way of the forward movement of history. Vindication will also allow a broader and bolder articulation of the president’s foundational concepts. Obama’s intellectual supporters often played hide and seek during his first term, backing some very bold ideas akin to “we built it,” only to retreat in the face of public opposition to claim that, aw shucks, Obama is nothing more than a country pragmatist. Vindication will allow the president to state more openly his social democratic principles, bringing about the intellectual transformation of American politics that he has sought.
Political campaigns are primarily about devising strategies to win elections. But campaigns have another dimension: They affect the general standing or acceptability of a candidate in the eyes of the American people. Some campaigns add to, or at least do not detract from, a candidate’s general standing. Even members of the losing party, though disappointed, recognize something positive about the victor. Other campaigns burn up a candidate’s standing and spend his moral capital. Obama’s campaign of 2008 was of the positive kind, while his campaign this year, based on personal assaults on his opponent and divisive appeals, has drawn down his stature. The audacity of hope has given way to the defense of Big Bird.
Yet his followers under the scenario of Vindication will find something new in him to admire. Liberals have a moralistic side, waxing poetic about feelings of goodness coursing through them, but they also admire the cool calculator and the tough street fighter. While costing the president among Americans generally, victory will bring him encomiums. There will surely be a new biography, published in 2013, entitled Obama: The Messiah and the Fox.