Backed by a nationwide call to voters at polling places to "Stay in Line," President Barack Obama won a sweeping re-election victory last night. Obama's smashing victory represents a powerful rejection of Republican policies, confirming that the GOP's success in 2010 was a product of low voter turnout rather than a rejection of Obama's first two years. Obama won the “swing” states of Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and Florida, riding a wave of Latino support to victory in these latter four states. President Obama worked his heart out in the past several months of this long campaign, yet questions remain whether he will bring his populist ardor and fighting spirit from the campaign trail into his second term. Obama may have given a hint of his future direction in his closing Iowa speech on the eve of Election Day. In perhaps the most populist speech he has ever given as president, Obama said he could not accept "bipartisanship" if that meant “surrender” of core Democratic values. That’s Obama acknowledging a common progressive criticism of his presidency, a very positive sign. The big picture is that President Obama has been given a second chance to become a true fighter for the poor, working and middle-class, and this time the progressive base must keep the president on track.
As usual, the vast majority of pundits and political reporters covering the Obama-Romney race got it wrong. Young people, working people,union members, Latinos, African-Americans, single women and other groups constituting the core Democratic base were not unenthusiastic about Barack Obama, and turned out in numbers that rivaled their totals in 2008.
Remember all those articles about young people not being so "in" to Obama this year? The youth vote actually increased to 19% of the electorate in 2012 over 18% in 2008.
To be clear, not since Barry Goldwater in 1964 has a Democratic constituency been so motivated by fear of what the Republican nominee could do to the country. Mitt Romney was despised and feared by Democrats in a way that John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000 were not. This anti-Romney, anti-GOP sentiment made up for the perceived Obama "enthusiasm gap" that the media promoted almost until the votes were counted.
Yet Obama stirred crowds wherever he went, and built the second best national presidential field campaign in history----second only to his 2008 effort.
A common pre-election theme was that President Obama would be just as thwarted by GOP obstructionism in his second term as he was during the past two years. This view misses a key distinction.
Republicans saw the 2010 elections as the public having second thoughts over 2008 and reversing course. The Republican-controlled House felt they had the moral high ground and that they, not a President elected in 2008, had the popular mandate. This helped them justify obstructionism both to themselves and to their political base, who needed little prompting.
This dynamic has entirely changed after last night. No longer can the Republican House legitimately claim they are speaking for the nation, and its clear to the public that the GOP's alleged mandate for change has evaporated.
Does this mean Rush Limbaugh and Mitch McConnell stop trying to destroy Obama's agenda at all cost? Of course not. But now the President has the confidence of a mandate he felt he lacked the past two years, and this will embolden he and his base to fight for their mandate in a way we did not see during Obama's first term.
I see the Democratic base just as excited about moving forward for change today as it was after the 2008 election. This was a far more ideological election than 2008, and Obama ran a far more economically populist campaign.
A New President Obama?
President Obama on the campaign trail so frequently identified himself as fighting for working people that he is either the greatest political actor of our time or truly sincere in wanting to make a difference. The more I heard Obama this campaign season the more I agreed with the latter. I have reevaluated my own criticism and disappointment in his performance, concluding that I and other progressives overestimated Obama's political skills and saw his weak negotiating skills as a lack of political commitment rather than stemming from inexperience.
Obama will never be a great political deal maker like Lyndon Johnson. But if he demonstrates the firmness he talked about on the campaign trail, he can unite the Democratic base behind higher taxes on the wealthy, greater public investment, a real challenge to climate change, greater funding for education, and the other core values he promoted on multiple campaign stops each day.
Our job is to push him to do this in a way that activists said they would do in 2008 but then largely failed to do in 2009 and 2010. If activists do their job, the promise of Barack Obama can yet be fully realized and the United States can move further toward greater social and economic fairness.
Labor, Latinos Win Big
It was barely mentioned on MSNBC last night, but Latino voters were key to Obama winning the White House for the second straight election. Growing Latino political power has transformed U.S. politics, and the time is long overdue for Democrats to reward this loyal and enthusiastic base (which went 73% for Obama) by addressing comprehensive immigration reform (Obama recognizes this as his victory speech mentioned immigration reform as being at the top of his action agenda).
I assume that some of the same law professors who showed Obama how to legally implement the DREAM Act without Congressional approval already have legal briefs explaining how he can stop deportations and temporarily legalize adult immigrants. This can protect the 8-12 million immigrants pending Republicans coming to their political senses and backing comprehensive reform.
Organized labor may be declining in membership, but their political ground game was key to Obama's victories in Ohio, Nevada, Colorado and many other states. No wonder the GOP keeps trying to destroy public employee unions, who have become the leading bulwark for the working and middle class in many states.
Gay rights took a huge step with marriage equality victories in all four states: Maine, Maryland, Washington, and even Minnesota, where I wrongly foresaw its defeat. And Tammy Baldwin became the nation's first openly gay United States Senator.
With Baldwin joining progressive hero Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, that often overly moderate Democratic majority just got a lot more activist and a lot more progressive.
A great night for Obama and for the 99%. And as that noted political philosopher Buster Posey says about each Giants World Series title, enjoy the victory but get ready to get back to work.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century