Columns

Why Barack Obama cannot fail

Claude Robinson

Sunday, November 11, 2012    

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BARACK Obama's re-election Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States of America has been widely acclaimed as historic: For me, the real significance of the win is that it confirms that 2008 was not an accident to be relegated to the footnotes of history, but an opportunity to be an uplifting chapter.

The coalition that elected him as the first black man to hold the most powerful elected office in the world held together against great odds to confirm that the election was a conscious act that conforms with the best hopes of a republic that claimed the fundamental equality of all human beings, regardless of race or origin, as its guiding principle and ultimate goal.

The president and his advisers have been praised for a disciplined and focused campaign; communicating a clear and consistent message; targeting the specific individuals, interest groups and geographic communities needed to get the number of Electoral College votes required to win. In Mr Obama's own words, it was "the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics".

They clearly understood that the 2012 presidential race was more than another second term. Consider the narrative in the US and the world had the election gone the other way.

It would be about Mitt Romney and the Republican establishment congratulating themselves for "taking back the country". It would be celebrating the rout of 'big government' and the death of regulation on Wall Street and the end of consumer protection; and it would be about unilateral projection of US military and economic power throughout the world.

Instead, as the president said Tuesday night, the narrative continues to be about moving forward towards a nation "that is not burdened by debt, weakened by inequality, threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet"; moving towards a world that is safer and where America is respected for its responsible leadership.

That narrative reflects the demographic and class re-alignments over the past decade and which will continue to reshape American politics and society in the decades ahead.

According to the 2010 Census, the percentage of non-Whites in the US population is increasing, and minorities mostly accounted for the surge in voters in 2008 and again in 2012. It is widely agreed that the trend will continue and in a few decades, the combination of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians will replace Whites as the majority racial group. Accordingly, current 'safe' Republican states like Texas will no longer be so considered.

The data indicate that last week President Obama garnered 93 per cent of the Black vote (13 per cent of voters), 71 per cent of the Latino vote (10 per cent of voters), and 74 per cent of the Asian-American vote.

Like many other commentators, I believe that the impressive turnout among Blacks and other minorities was significantly influenced by worsening race relations in the US in the past four years.

As reported online in The Afro last week, "Pre-election polls showed that racist attitudes toward African-Americans and Hispanics had increased during President Obama's first term and signalled a resentment among Whites that could cost him White votes. That prediction seemed to be borne out in the exit polls. Obama did less well among White voters, winning only 39 per cent compared to Mitt Romney's 59 per cent support among that group."

Much of this hardening of racial arteries had been fed by the constant diet of questioning by 'birthers', the Tea Party and others of the president's authenticity as an "American"; hence 'we have to take back our country'.

The president's health care reform bill, the economic stimulus, the auto industry bailout, Wall Street financial industry reform, reduction in the disparity of criminal justice penalties between Blacks and Whites would be unthinkable under a Republican president.

Similarly, Hispanic voters — though unimpressed by the historically large number of deportations under President Obama — would have drawn some comfort from his support of the Dream Act which creates a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants.

In any event he would be a safer bet, given the rampant anti-Hispanic sentiments within the increasingly insular Republican Party. As one CNN analyst put it: "Latinos were disillusioned with Obama but absolutely terrified of Mitt Romney."

Additionally, voters of all races seemed unable to believe that Romney is committed to them. According to an Associated Press exit poll, 54 per cent of voters felt the Republican candidate would favour the rich, only 34 per cent thought his policies would do more for middle class America and virtually zero per cent thought Romney would aid the poor. Conversely, 75 per cent of voters said Obama's policies favoured the middle class or the poor.

One hand can't clap

That's the coalition that the president cannot and must not fail. Among other things, success as defined by Mr Obama involves forging a compromise to unite the country around some specific objectives: reducing the budget deficit, fixing the tax code, reforming immigration and reducing American dependence on foreign oil.

These are the same issues on which there was implacable disagreement during the first Obama term. Will the second term be more successful than the first in healing America's economic and other wounds and leading the much-needed global economic recovery?

We will know the answer soon enough. Meanwhile, as the president was preparing to comment Friday on the deficit issue, the Associated Press was reporting, "Republicans continue to draw a line in the sand against higher tax rates for upper-income earners as they seek to topple the conventional wisdom that Obama has the upper hand in upcoming negotiations on averting the potentially economy-crippling set of tax increases and automatic spending cuts due to hit in January.

"Obama faces a tough core decision: Does he pick a fight and risk a prolonged impasse with Republicans or does he rush to compromise and risk alienating Democrats still celebrating his victory?

"Many of his Democratic allies hope Obama will take a hard line when he addresses the matter Friday. Republicans warn that a fight could poison efforts for a rapprochement in a bitterly divided Capitol and threaten his second-term agenda."

As Mr Obama contemplates how and when to spend his political capital in search of a consensus he cannot lose sight of the hopes and dreams of the multi-ethnic, multi-class coalition that turned out last Tuesday. He has to transform winning into governing.

I end by repeating words from a 2007 column in which I urged then Senator Barack Hussein Obama to "take the plunge and seek the presidency to offer US voters an opportunity to come to terms with their worst fears. In the process, they may also achieve a partial healing of what Obama called 'the past's grievous wounds' of the Civil War.

"Globally, he also represents an opportunity to start the long process of regaining US credibility in the world through a more rational use of America's unparalleled economic and military power and influence in ways that recognise that rich and poor, black and white, share a common human space." He still represents those hopes.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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