Yesterday’s editorial, in discussing some of the immediate challenges facing Mr Obama as continuing President, pointed out, among other things, that even though he won the Electoral College convincingly, his margin of victory was smaller than in 2008. Indeed, in terms of the popular vote, his share of just over 50 per cent to Mr Romney’s 48 per cent was down from 52.9 per cent in 2008 to John McCain’s 45.6 per cent, which was then the largest margin since Bill Clinton’s win in 1996.
To get a better idea of the closeness of the election, one only has to look at a map depicting the election results by state. Critically for Mr Obama, he prevailed in seven of the nine ‘battleground‘ states. But in terms of the overall number of states won, with Florida still to be declared at the time of writing, Mr Obama carried 25 plus the District of Columbia to Mr Romney’s 24. In 2008, the equation was 29 to 22.
Even more sobering for the returning Obama administration is the fact that in the Congress, Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives whilst Democrats kept the Senate, raising the spectre of continuing gridlock in US politics.
A win is a win, but America is still a deeply divided nation. Again, take a look at the electoral map – the Democratic blue states are in the northeast, the west coast and most of the mid-west around the Great Lakes; the Republican red states cut a swathe across the heartland of the country from the west to the deep south, apart from Colorado and New Mexico. The tensions between more socially liberal, progressive and open thinking states , on the one hand, and those reflecting deep-rooted social conservatism, religious fundamentalism and close-mindedness, on the other, would appear to be greater than ever.
Clearly, Mr Obama will have a lot of serious politicking to do to engage with Congress, but he will also have a lot of healing to do, across the country, to bring together Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, minorities and the more recalcitrant elements of the shrinking white majority. Whether he can succeed or not in an America, which is, after all, still a country of profound complexity and contradictions, only time will tell.
In 2008, Barack Obama was the candidate of hope and change; this time around, he was the candidate promising more hope, given his inability to change significantly the political culture of Washington and to deliver on many of his campaign promises, all too understandable in the context of the huge problems – most notably, the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression – he inherited from George W Bush. But there is a limit to how much a leader and his supporters can continue to point at the sins of the preceding administration to explain disappointing results. The President has to lead from the front.
Mr Obama’s re-election offers him the opportunity to build on the steps taken in his first term. Now, the challenge will be for him to blend elements of continuity and change and to make good on the promise that he has represented ever since 2008, something he seemed to recognise in his victory speech on Tuesday night, when he declared that Americans had “voted for action, not politics as usual.” In this regard, he has been granted a second chance to give real meaning to the phrase he has made his own, “the audacity of hope.”
To do this, however, he will have to rise above his own soaring rhetoric. He will have to be bold as well as pragmatic, even as he reaches out across the political divide to build consensus. As we suggested yesterday, with no need to think about re-election in 2016, he can probably afford to step out of his crease. Just as long as Democratic Party strategists, perhaps with an eye on a Hilary Clinton candidacy at the next election, and other aspirants allow him to build a legacy beyond being the first African-American to be elected President of the United States.