Barack Obama has won reelection. Will America now lose its distinct characteristics and be transformed into a Euro-style welfare state? Quite possibly, yet there remains one way out. At this point, only a sweeping new grassroots rebellion on the model of the Tea Party could change things. In the wake of a presidential election so discouraging for conservatives, a massive new tea-party wave may not appear to be in the cards. Yet a resurgent second-term challenge to Obama from populist conservatives is far more likely than it seems.
That’s because the president’s first term hasn’t really happened yet, at least not in the conventional sense. Ordinarily, a president enacts various policies in his first term, the public test-drives the changes, and the president’s reelection campaign is a referendum on those new policies. The difference in Obama’s case is that in order to secure reelection, he has backloaded nearly all of his most transformative and controversial changes into a second term. Obama’s next term will actually put into effect health-care reform, Dodd-Frank, and a host of other highly controversial policies that are already surging through the pipeline yet still barely known to the public.
Obama’s transformative changes to date have been far more theory than practice. While reelection may bring sullen public acceptance when Obama’s most controversial policies actually take effect, the reverse is equally possible. Once people actually begin to experience de facto health-care rationing, for example, they might get even angrier than they were in 2009–2010, when rationing was only a prospect. The same principle applies to a host of other issues (cap-and-trade via regulation, financial regulations, comprehensive immigration reform, national school curricula, urban-suburban policy). And this time, the public could be angered not only by the policies, but by growing recognition that actual enactment of Obama’s agenda was delayed for political purposes.
The fact that Obama has only very narrowly secured reelection — unusual, since reelected presidents normally expand their initial electoral margins — might seem to contradict this high-conflict scenario. You can certainly argue that a barely-reelected president would be smart to pull in his horns and govern from the middle. Yet that’s not who Barack Obama is, and it’s certainly not the premise upon which he ran his campaign. Obama took the intentionally risky path of alienating half the country with an in-your-face negative campaign because he believed that demographics now allow him to cobble together a leftist majority in support of transformative change. Whether that demographic vision is accurate or not, Obama and his advisers believe that it is, and so will govern with relative disregard for opposition, however vocal.
The reelection of a Republican House of Representatives might also seem to have a moderating impact on the president, and to a limited degree it does. Yet Obama has cast aside conventional restraints on executive power with his pre-election orders on welfare reform and immigration. He will thus interpret reelection as a license to rule by executive order — well beyond the traditional limits on executive power. In the absence of intense populist pressure on a Congress facing another tea-party electoral wave in 2014, it will be impossible to prevent Obama from abusing his executive authority.
Even the conventional post-election honeymoon period may be short-lived. A huge controversy over the fiscal cliff looms in the lame-duck session of Congress. Obama has predicted that in the wake of his reelection, the Republican “fever” will break. Given the stakes, his conduct of this campaign, and Obama’s evident transformative intentions, a bitter showdown is more probable.
The long and short of it is that President Obama has won reelection, but in a way likely to propel national polarization well beyond its current level. By delaying his most controversial policy changes to a second term, laying the basis for (arguably unconstitutional) rule by executive order, and running a negative campaign designed to realign the electorate leftward, Obama has laid the foundation for a high-conflict future. What’s more, he knows it, and he’s ready for it. Obama is willing to pay the price of national division for the sake of making the transformative changes he seeks. So a massive increase in polarization is exactly what we’re likely to get.
To put it another way, because the public has never truly seen the changes he’s enacted put into practice, Obama has an exceedingly tenuous mandate. But he doesn’t care. All Obama wants to do is to squeak by, after which he plans to depend on shifting demographics to cement his sweeping transformation in place. The question is, have Americans really changed as much as Obama thinks, or will the actual arrival of his long-delayed first-term agenda in his second term set off a populist movement that brings his plans to a halt?