The verdict on Tuesday’s election is simple: Obama survived. If Obama’s 2008 victory signified hope and change, this one signified just hanging on. What foundation that gives him for governing, let alone a legacy, remains to be seen.
In 2008, Obama rode to victory on what seemed a juggernaut. He won by the largest popular vote percentage of any Democrat since LBJ — beating McCain 52.5 percent to 46.2 percent. His electoral margin was even greater — 365–173. And his coattails were long, with Democrats picking up eight Senate and 24 House seats — securing for Obama an enormous legislative majority in Congress.
On Tuesday, it was a very different story. His popular-vote margin fell to just 50.3 percent to 48.1 percent — making him the first elected incumbent to win a second term and see that margin fall. And his coattails were slim — with Democrats gaining just two Senate and, at most, eight House seats.
For those wishing to paint Obama’s narrow Tuesday reelection as a triumph over adversity — let alone a mandate for the next four years — several things should be remembered.
First, odds heavily favor elected presidents seeking reelection — only three have lost since Taft did a century ago.
Second, Obama’s cash advantage over Romney was still substantial — $380 million to $219 million in battleground states this year. Certainly, Republican-affiliated outside spending helped, but Obama’s greater control over a far greater amount of money — coupled with far more favorable media coverage — gave him a decided advantage.
Third, while Romney won more votes than McCain, Obama could have drawn a tougher foe from among Republicans choosing not to run. An Obama victory against one of these might well have not occurred.
Lastly and most important, Obama had a hand in much of the adversity he faced in office.
Obamacare, his signature legislative accomplishment — enacted during his first two years, when he could have secured passage of seemingly any initiative he wanted — remains unpopular.
The economy, after contracting his first year in office, continues to just grind along — averaging just 2 percent annual real growth during his last three years. Unemployment remains high at 7.9 percent, and higher than when he came into office.
The federal government has spent on average about a quarter of the nation’s GDP over his first four years, and the deficits — all record highs — have never been below $1 trillion. As a result, the government’s debt held by the public roughly doubled during his first term.
Obama’s greatest break in office — and certainly the one to which he ultimately owes his reelection — was that just enough of the electorate was willing to ascribe just enough blame for the economy and budget to his predecessor. Without that ambiguity in just enough minds, Tuesday’s outcome certainly would have been different.
At times during this campaign, it looked like Obama’s grasp on the election was slipping, but in the end his grip on the electorate proved just strong enough, for just long enough, to avoid defeat.
The question now: What has Obama gained from his close, hard-fought victory?
Economically, turnaround is hardly certain — the Congressional Budget Office estimated that even if the fiscal cliff’s negative effects are avoided, the economy would only grow 1.7 percent next year.
Politically, Obama won without a mandate and becomes a lame duck shortly. He has two years before a midterm election that could easily prove more damaging to Democrats than 2010 was. Similar Republican gains in 2014 would leave him facing a fully Republican-controlled Congress. And relations with an opposition Congress in a second term president’s last two years have bedeviled even more skilled politicians — such as Clinton and Reagan.
For now, give Obama his due: He is a survivor. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty, but it was just enough to be successful. It remains to be seen whether the same can be said for his next four years.
— J. T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.