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Man without a mandate? The challenge of Obama 2.0

by Sandip Roy  Nov 7, 2012 15:56 IST

#2012 U.S. Elections   #Barack Obama   #HowThisWorks  

“Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual,” Barack Obama told a cheering crowd in Chicago in his acceptance speech.

But now that the confetti has settled, a new day in America looks remarkably like well, yesterday once more.

Barack Obama remains president. Republicans remain in control of the House of Representatives. The Democrats hold onto the Senate. In short, it’s politics as usual.

If Mitt Romney was gracious in his concession speech the Wall Street Journal didn’t bother to hide its disappointment.

Mr. Obama will now have to govern the America he so relentlessly sought to divide—and without a mandate beyond the powers of the Presidency. Democrats will hold the Senate, perhaps with an additional seat or two. But Republicans held the House comfortably, so their agenda was hardly repudiated.

Barack Obama after winning the polls. Reuters.

This has become the kneejerk mantra of the punditry – the president without a mandate.

It’s back to square one for Obama says Reuters.

He faces a difficult task of tackling $1 trillion annual deficits, reducing a $16 trillion national debt, overhauling expensive social programs and dealing with a gridlocked U.S. Congress that kept the same partisan makeup.

But the fact is the man won. As political commentator James Carville barked on CNN: The man has won reelection. That’s got to count for something.

Well, what does it count for?

Commentators think it means Obama 2.0 needs to sit down with House Speaker John Boehner and work things out across the aisle. That actually sounds a lot like Obama 1.0.

Obama 1.0 floundered not because he didn’t reach across the aisle but because he spent way too much time reaching across the aisle, behind closed doors, and trying to accommodate everyone from Republicans to lobbyists to blue dog conservative Democrats.

Obama 2.0 can make his case to the people and take his cues from them because he doesn’t have to worry about being re-elected.

Take taxes and the expiration of tax cuts for the very rich. The Speaker has already signaled he hopes Obama is not thinking of raising taxes on anyone, including the very rich.

What Obama will need to remember in his second term is what the people think.  The New York Times points out:

Significantly, 60 percent of voters said taxes should be raised either on the rich or on everyone. Only 35 percent said they should not be raised at all; that group, naturally, went heavily for Mr. Romney.

The voters, in electing Barack Obama to a second term in a bad economy, signaled that they believe that the man is honourable and trying his best even if they didn’t think they were seeing results quickly enough. Obama has an ethical core that is his greatest asset.

That needs to be at the centre of his second term, not focus groups. He, alone, and rather uniquely among politicians, has the ability to cast an issue in moral terms, to position it along the “arc of justice.” That is something he cannot squander.

He will need to hold fast to those principles as he takes up the issues he rattled through in his acceptance speech.

Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do… (an America) that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

Obama needs to get out in front of those issues. The chattering pundits think he is hamstrung because his party does not control the House. But actually he can, if he chooses, consider himself unfettered. He can take on these issues and cast them as moral imperatives, not just voting bank deliverables. He can take them directly to the people through speeches, townhalls, or his own version of fireside chats. Obama 2.0 can be an Independent in the way Obama 1.0 could not.

The Republicans are waking up to the fallout of their intransigence on immigration reform because they realize that it’s costing them the Latino vote. Mitt Romney lost the race in the primary,” said Republican analyst Ana Navarro. “He self-deported from the White House.”  But they don’t see immigration as a moral issue. They see it as a numbers issue and are worried that they are on the wrong side of it. Tunku Vardarajan tweeted “If the GOP isn't careful, the Latino vote could turn Texas blue by 2020. ‪#WakeUpRepublicans.”

Obama frames it differently.

We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag.

Barack Obama came to be president on the audacity of hope. That he won reelection is a tribute to the stubbornness of hope. People placed their hope in him, even in the middle of economic doldrums, because they trusted his values even if they disagreed with his policies.

Obama is aware of that. As he said:

And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president..

It’s time for him to prove that that’s not just empty words. That’s one campaign promise he must keep.

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