US election: A vote for the status quo

President Obama acknowledging the crowds at his victory speech in Chicago

After the longest and most expensive election campaign any democracy has ever seen, President Barack Obama was re-elected, albeit by a narrower margin than he received four years ago.

Despite America's weak economy, high unemployment and partisan rancour, voters returned incumbents to office in the White House and Congress, kept the same the balance of party power in Congress, and squarely embraced the status quo.

President Obama won re-election with unemployment at 7.9% - the highest any incumbent seeking re-election has faced since Franklin D Roosevelt.

And no incumbent since Roosevelt has held onto office amidst such a bad economy - not Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or George Bush Sr.

Bucking the tides of history, however, is not the same as earning the kind of mandate that will intimidate the opposition party.

The final popular vote is not in yet, but it appears Mr Obama will have just a minute margin over Mr Romney.

The president will again face a Republican House of Representatives, though he will have a few more Democratic senators to help him.

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Gridlock and intense partisanship may well be part of the status quo that endures in President Obama's second term.

That will depend partly on how the Republicans in Congress read the election results.

Will they see a weakened president, who squeaked through, and thus carry on with their aggressive, uncompromising opposition?

Or will Republicans be more concerned with their own losses and steer toward a more traditional, conciliatory and co-operative posture in Congress?

Their internal battles between party factions will be as intense as the campaign that just finished.

The Obama White House faces a similar strategic choice, but with a more united party behind him.

A "fiscal cliff" is looming - a difficult coincidence of expiring tax breaks and federal spending cuts.

Will the president spend his freshly-earned political capital trying to navigate a grand compromise to avoid the "fiscal cliff" and work for negotiated, bi-partisan legislation to govern the country's debt, deficit and spending laws over the next several years?

A delighted Obama supporter watches the results in New York

Or will the White House take a more piecemeal approach, negotiating something small-bore to deal with the "fiscal cliff" elements, but not a grander fiscal blueprint?

A second term does ensure that the hallmark achievement of Mr Obama's first term - Obamacare - will not be repealed.

To the contrary, the president will have four years to tinker with the programme, improve it and institutionalise it.

The success of his healthcare reform programme may not have been an obvious asset in the 2012 campaign, but it is likely to be an enduring accomplishment of his presidency.

Mr Obama will also have the opportunity to influence the Supreme Court long after he leaves office.

The key there is Justice Anthony Kennedy, 75, a Republican appointee who has been the key swing vote on the court. If Justice Kennedy retires, Mr Obama will be able to make an appointment that could give liberals - or at least judges appointed by Democrats - a majority on the court for a decade or more.

Start Quote

The negativity and lying that marked this campaign wasn't a new low for American politics. It was a very old-style low, but with new volume”

End Quote
Foreign challenges

It is unlikely there will be any major course changes on foreign policy. Anti-terrorism will remain the highest of priorities, the military draw-down in Afghanistan will continue, and there are no indications of a more interventionist policy in Syria.

Barring a strike by Israel on Iran, the US seems set to continue its policy of sanctions and international pressure.

The fate of other issues potentially high on Mr Obama's second term agenda is more unpredictable.

The administration could well make the contentious issues of immigration reform, climate change and financial regulation priorities, for example.

And Republicans could fight Democratic initiatives with all their might.

"There's nothing in the closeness of the popular vote or the minimal change in House seats that would suggest the Republicans will feel any need to alter their oppositional stance," said Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina.

Or they could change course and join hands.

If there is any impetus for a spasm of Republican bipartisanship, it could come from a reading of the exit polls and demographic trends.

Women once again voted heavily for Mr Obama by a margin of 55% to 43%. The female tilt toward the Democrats is now deeply etched in presidential elections.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaigning together with fireworks going off behind them They fought a hard campaign, but there were no fireworks on the night

Non-white voters broke for Mr Obama overwhelmingly. And that population is growing by roughly 2% every four years; the white population is shrinking by roughly 2% every four years.

"The demographics race we're losing badly," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told The Washington Post this summer, in a moment of candour. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term," he said.

Republican shift to right

The Republican Party has deep and emotional divisions, as the Democrats did throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The Tea Party might have lost some supporters in the House, but they remain potent in the party's primaries, driving the Republicans to the right. The few remaining self-described moderate Republicans have left the Senate, so that centrist pull is gone.

Start Quote

No-one is fair to President Obama... But his innate ability justifies that high standard”

End Quote David Brooks Columnist

Republicans are not without advantages. They remain the party of business and raise more money than Democrats.

And Republicans again did better with white voters - the biggest block on the board. They have an attractive, younger group of politicians with some national reputation, led by Mitt Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan.

As for Mr Romney, his campaign was methodically organised and well-financed, but he never quite overcame the perception that he was an opportunist without principled political spine.

His own spokesman seemed to prove that point after the primaries, where Mr Romney ran as a hard conservative.

"Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Eric Fehrnstrom said. "Everything changes. It's almost like an etch-a-sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

The etch-a-sketching didn't work. The image of Mr Romney as an extremely wealthy man out of touch with real life in America hardened after a recording emerged of him saying 47% of Americans were, in essence, freeloaders.

On election day, the 72% of voters who earn less than $100,000 a year (£60,000) decisively rejected Mr Romney.

Obama at a campaign rally in Denver in August 2012, with a big banner saying "women's health security" Obama will get a chance to defend, even tinker with, his healthcare programme

His ads and his stump speech were infamous - even by the low standards of modern American campaigns - for stretching, or ignoring, the truth. "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster. They didn't.

Dollar-fuelled politics

Tough campaigns lead to calls for tough political reforms. And 2012 was a very tough campaign, partly because of its length and the money involved - an estimated $2.6bn (£1.6bn) - mostly spent on TV ads.

Within days of the 2010 mid-term elections, presidential campaigns commenced.

Then an important Supreme Court removed almost all remaining limits on campaign fundraising and spending. Voters were bombarded by TV ads, robo-calls and social media messages, for months and months.

The tenor and tone of political propaganda this year fit the early years of the country, when parties and partisans controlled the newspapers and pamphleteers.

Start Quote

Free of the burden of facing re-election, Mr Obama could be a very different leader in his second term”

End Quote

The negativity and lying that marked this campaign was not a new low for American politics. It was a very old-style low, but with new volume, thanks to new technology - and billions of dollars.

There will certainly be a move for election reform. It will be interesting to see if President Obama leads that effort.

In 2008, Mr Obama was something of a Rorschach test for his supporters - a vessel for hopes, ideals and aspirations. His election as America's first black president was an emotional, prideful moment for the country.

But his first term was dogged by the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

Healthcare reform may well be the most consequential legislative action since the Great Society in the 1960s. But voters remain divided over it.

Mr Obama's Republican opponents fought him every step. Throughout the campaign year, Mr Obama appeared to lack the stature his accomplishments might seem to demand.

"No-one is fair to President Obama," the conservative columnist David Brooks wrote last week.

"People grade him against tougher standards than any other politician. But his innate ability justifies that high standard," he said.

Tested and tempered by four years in office, the worst of the economic crisis behind him, and free of the burden of facing re-election, Mr Obama could be a very different leader in his second term.

But the Washington he must operate in is very much unchanged by the results of the 2012 elections.


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US Presidential Election 2012


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  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Well done President Obama.

    Now the real work begins. Sorting out the banks, energy issues and the broken economy he inherited from George Bush is a true 8 year problem. The Republican House of Representatives must now stop blocking the President's plans for the sake of the American people.

    The people have spoken, and they want President Obama!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Gary Johnson (the Libertarian nominee) did quite well considering the mainstream media ignored him. And the CPD (Commission on Presidential Debates) purposely excluded him from debating Obama & Romney --despite the fact that he was polling around 5% to 10% nationally.

    Johnson is the only anti-war, anti-globalist, and anti-NWO candidate (like his friend Ron Paul)

    And he's running again in 2016!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    What a relief that Obama get's to finish and so take credit for the job he started. He enters the presidency this time under better circumstances and might at last have a chance to catch his stride and move us all forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    I voted for Gary Johnson from the Libertarian Party. I like that the Libertarian Party is "fiscally" conservative --but "socially" liberal."

    Well done ProudAmerican, I followed Ron Paul from 1998 and it was clear this time that Romney was never going to win, as he isolated a huge section of Republican support by cheating Ron Paul's campaign.

    RP2016 ;o)

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    President Obama may have won,but statistics shows that about 52% of the american population is with his republican challenger on the issue of economic far as the Asian countries are concerned ,President Obama getting re-elected might be agood thing as they are familiar with his personality and policy making stratergies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    "...Gary Johnson from the Libertarian Party... legalize ... prostitution --and reform the entire justice system"

    He's welcome to a job over here. End some silly controversies once and for all, solve some other problems.

    Don't think his tax plan would work though..

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I voted for Gary Johnson from the Libertarian Party. I like that the Libertarian Party is "fiscally" conservative --but "socially" liberal.

    Fiscally conservative because they want to eliminate (income) taxes, abolish the IRS (tax agency), cut spending, and end ALL American foreign aid.

    Socially liberal because they want to legalize marijuana & prostitution --and reform the entire justice system

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    With his proliferation of the questionable war in Afghanistan, veto of the UN resolution against Israel and unsanctioned military activities in Pakistan, Obama is the lesser of two evils, but we should be thankful for that.

    China will also be breathing a sigh of relief, as Obama is unlikely to start a war against Iran, which means that China's cheap oil-supply remains in place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    23 I agree , Mr Graham could have extended the analysis by observing that and for each angry guy they create they are putting two more moderate unhappy people off their party entirely.

    Sadly the nature of politics is likely to end up with them diagnosing the problem as not being extreme enough - much as the Conservatives diagnose why they failed to get a majority here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Whilst I very much applaud the social reforms that the Democrats have advocated in office despite President Obama's previous tenure starting in a world financial maelstrom: I doubt that the Democrats have the appetite to attack their 'fiscal cliff' in such a way that will see the resurgence of the American eonomy to the extent that is required to re-energise other 'western' economies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Well the 'guns' party managed to shoot themselves in the foot. 'Legitimate rape', what the hell is that? No wonder the vast majority of women voted for Obama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Romney's rhetoric was dangerous, and the Republican Senator said it all: "We're not generating enough angry white guys..."

    Last thing the world needs is more angry [any colour you want] [any gender you want].

    Obama is a little more enigmatic, but his more conciliatory approach to foreign policy in many areas will pay dividends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    "As for Mr Romney, his campaign was methodically organised and well-financed, but he never quite overcame the perception that he was an opportunist without principled political spine."

    I don't think in all the coverage of this election I have heard him summed up so perfectly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Not keen on Obama but Romney was plain offensive. The ulta-right has no focus after the collapse of the USSR. It ain't about Communism v Capitalism any more. The real debate in Western democracies is religion v secularism. Hands up who wants to live in a fundamentalist religious (Islam/Christian) state - oops, thought so, hardly anyone. Just the nutters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It's ironic that the margin of popular vote would be brought up like it's suddenly important. After all, the GOP has spent the last two years acting as if majority control of a single branch of Congress, the House, was a mandate for the "tea party" platform. Lack of compromise with the party that controls the Senate and White House has been treated like an ideal by the House Republicans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    When a president actually gets into office, 90% of their promised radicalism goes straight out the window simply because it is impossible to get it through.

    So would we have been better/worse off in the UK if Romney had won?

    Wouldn't have changed anything.

    Its the same here - would we be in less/more trouble if Labour had won?

    Probably just about the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The urban US votes Democrat and is geographically on the west and east coast extremes and the huge rural middle votes Republican. If the divide was more geographically north v south or east v west this country would have split a long time ago and would be completely separate entities ideologically and culturally. The onslaught of creationism and armageddon stalled for another 4 years ..phew!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    The popular vote is irrelevant as there are many safe seats in which many people won't bother to vote.

    I heard many republican voters saying they were voting Romney because of the economy and in spite of social issues. At the next election, once the economy has further recovered, the Democrats will win by a landslide if the Republicans don't dramatically improve their morality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    What a relief for the science community over there! The USA is saved from plunging back into an anti-science frenzy of religious fundamentalism for another 4 years at least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Pfewww !!!! .....Israel won't bomb Iran today..


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