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Friday, November 9, 2012

U.S. Election 2012: Obama Vindicated?

The U.S. presidential election in November 2012 was the first in which neither of the major-party candidates participated in the campaign matching system that imposes campaign spending limits in return for federal financing. It was also the first presidential election since the Citizens United case in 2010. That U.S. Supreme Court ruling was a significant factor in the election because corporations and unions could dip into their respective treasuries directly, rather than only through employee or member contributions, to spend an unlimited amount on political ads by making donations to “social welfare” organizations. Without disclosing their donor lists, these non-profit organizations could create political ads that in turn could favor or criticize a particular candidate, albeit with no formal approval from the favored candidate. Faced with formidable super PACs pumping some $800 million or more in favor of Mitt Romney, Obama’s money-machine went into high-gear in a sort of “rich man’s” arms-race. Some rich donors had spent millions of dollars to push the massive ship of state a discernible distance in their direction. Hardly anyone expected that the contending high monies would virtually cancel each other out. Hardly anyone thought the Obama campaign’s scientifically-based “ground game” oriented to getting new voters registered would trump Romney’s financial support from Wall Street. Subtly missing in action among all the financial fire-power and, Obama’s empirical operation, and even all the presidential “debates” were ideas and a sustained societal discussion of a few basic principles of political economy and governance. The result, in spite of all the money, time and effort, was a continuance of the political status quo because few minds were changed in the process. That is to say, ideas and related rational argument are required for a basic shift in a body politic.

Referring to the federal election, the New York Times reported afterwards that “the overall cost of the campaign rose accordingly, with all candidates for federal office, their parties and their supportive ‘super PACs’ spending more than $6 billion combined.” The grand result for all that money was that the U.S. House remained in Republican hands, the U.S. Senate continued with a slim Democratic majority, and the Democrats held the White House. Even the deal-makers—the major players—notably John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and Barak Obama—remained in place. The difficulty they had had as a group in coming to agreement on major policy items before the election was essentially unchanged.

On Thursday, November 8tth the New York Times summed up the previous year and a half as follows: “After $6 billion, two dozen presidential primary election days, a pair of national conventions, four general election debates, hundreds of Congressional contests and more television advertisements than anyone would ever want to watch, the two major political parties in America essentially fought to a standstill. When all the shouting was done, the American people on Tuesday more or less ratified the status quo that existed at the start of the day: they returned President Obama to the White House for another four years, reaffirmed Republican control of the House and kept the Senate in Democratic hands. As of Wednesday, the margins in the House and the Senate had each changed by just two or three seats.” For all the money, time and effort spent kicking up dirt and picking fights, when the dust settled it was clear that the American electorate had not moved much at all.

It is not that the American electorate intentionally voted for continued divided government or gridlock. Rather, the American body politic contained voters of diametrically-opposed political, economic and social ideologies. In spite of the length of the campaign “season,” neither camp had budged by election-day. The resulting continuance of the status quo meant the continuance of the political constellation in Washington that had led to gridlock. Besides gridlock being more generally etched into the very design of the federal lawmaking apparatus in part to check power as well as unwelcome encroachments of the General Government on to the turf of the state governments, the various stalemates on the Hill in 2011 and 2012 were a manifestation, or symptom, of where the People as an aggregate stood then politically—that is, divided and even polarized ideologically. As a result of the stark ideological differences between citizens and the multiple points of access available in the U.S. Government, both major parties had sufficient electoral support and accessibility to the federal law-making machinery to grind policy-making and legislative activity to a halt on major problems desperately in need of solutions.

A story in the New York Times on the day after the election had as a headline, “Electorate Reverts to a Familiar Divide as Obama’s Support Narrows.” He “garnered just 50 percent of the popular vote, three percentage points lower than in 2008, in a sign of just how divided” the electorate was “over his leadership.” In spite of Obama having lost some of his base, the mere two-percentage-point difference in the popular vote between the two major candidates meant that among the electorate neither “side” had budged much. To find a “verdict” on the president’s first term beyond the vested opinions of the two bases, one must look to how the independents. Even there, the “verdict” was muted.

Referring to the independents, the New York Times reported that the vote was “very close.” In some swing states, including Ohio and Virginia, Romney received a slight majority of such voters (53 and 54 percent, respectively), while Obama received similar majorities in a few others (Iowa and New Hampshire). However, Obama received 45 percent of the independents over all (Romney got 50 percent), and in 2008 Obama had received 52 percent. This means that Obama lost some of the independents he had had in 2008. As a “verdict” of the relatively neutral “jury” segment within the electorate, the loss of 8 percent suggests something less than a vindication for the president.

Moreover, that Obama received 50% of the popular vote over all while Romney got 48% suggests that the contest ended unchanged as a virtual draw. Put another way, only about 3 million Americans out of 310 million residents in the U.S. separated the two candidates in the popular vote. About 1% of the entire population hardly constitutes a mandate, as if “the American people” has swung around en mass to support the incumbent after a long and hard-fought campaign.

 President Barack Obama on Election Night 2012.     Source: The Atlantic

To be sure, some general movement can be discerned, as most counties had shifted in the Democratic direction in 2008 to vote for Obama only to shift back in a Republican direction in 2012. It could be said that the country had returned to its native center-right position. That Obama’s narrower base came out in sufficient force to counter the general shift in a Republican direction in most counties and a slight shift away by some independents accounts for his slight majority in the popular vote (and his wins in almost all of the swing states). Even so, such wan movement does not constitute the sort that is associated with an idea or mandate. Put another way, even the shift toward “Obamania” of 2008 was short-lived—the ideational shortfall rendering the “movement” as akin to a short-lived energy spirt from cotton-candy rather than new muscle from rich protein.

Accordingly, “(t)he bottom-line scorecard [from the 2012 federal election] left Washington as divided as ever,” according to the Times, “with no resolution of most of the fundamental issues at stake. The profound debate that has raged over the size and role of government, the balance between stimulus spending and austerity and the proper level of taxation has not been settled in the least.” The ideas had not changed because the hyperactive campaigns had been relatively bereft of new ones or even serious discussion of the central principles.

For all of the money, ads, and “debates,” one might say that talking points rather than novel arguments or ideas took center-stage during the long campaign “season.” In an interview on CBS’s Sixty Minutes broadcast shortly before the election, David McCullough, who had written several books on American political history (and who spoke at my doctoral graduation ceremony!), said he doubted that any words from the two major presidential candidates would stand the test of time. In fact, nothing said or written during even the “debates” was worthy of being retained past the news cycle of the day. The historian went on to contrast the contemporary talking-points with the authenticity in Truman’s “Give ‘em hell Harry!” campaign of 1942. In 2012, talking points backed up by fund-raising and the application of empirical political science to getting elected punctuated the candidates’ trajectories along paths of political-least resistance.

Considering the sheer duration of the primaries and general campaign, the opportunity-cost of shallow campaigning is in terms of foregone governance not only during the duration, but afterward as well. Moreover, the empty-form of a superficial campaign-mode exacerbates the fundamental flaw in having extended the campaign “season” further and further:  Taking a means—that of selecting office-holders to govern—as more important than its end, governance. The eclipse of governance at the federal level in the U.S. is from not only gridlock, but also the enabling ideational emptiness of the modern campaign elongated into a sustained void of sorts that the electorate allowed to take on a life of its own. 

For the body politic to shift as a body having a will from the status quo such that political leadership evincing a direction could replace gridlock and stasis, some ideational-ideological change would have to have occurred in enough voters that the contours of the body itself will have changed. Sadly, the experience of having gone through the financial crisis of 2008—rather than any new idea or exchange of ideas—led an unusually high 51% of the presidential voters in 2008 to favor more government intervention in the economy while only 43% wanted more things to be left to business. The unusually high percentage was a result of economic fear and perhaps even greater hardship due to the crisis, rather than from a national debate centered on a reconsideration of old ideas.

That even powerful people can reflect on the level of fundamental ideas and come to different conclusions genuinely rather than in a political calculation (e.g., Obama’s “change” on gay marriage during his re-election campaign) suggests that citizens too can allow themselves to be more open ideologically and thus shift. An empirical crisis, for instance, can jar loose even fundamental paradigms. For example, Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, admitted in Congressional testimony after the financial crisis of 2008 that the freezing-up of the commercial paper market in September 2008 had shown him that his free-market, or laissez-faire economic paradigm had a fundamental flaw. He marveled before a panel of lawmakers that forty years of observing markets had done nothing to point to the flaw. Specifically, the market mechanism itself can freeze-up rather than make pricing adjustments under conditions of high volatility involving high uncertainty and risk. In September 2008 as banks lost trust in each other, they stopped lending rather than adjust their rates of interest upward to compensate for the additional risk. High risk, especially if occurring all of a sudden, can paralyze a market’s mechanism. Hence, the former central banker could suddenly discern a rationale for regulation by the government because of the “fatal flaw” in the “market-alone” paradigm.

Had the ideas behind Greenspan’s paradigmatic shift percolated through the electorate during the presidential election of 2008 or even 2010 in place of “Obama as the flavor of the month,” the percentages on the question would not have subsequently flipped back in 2012 back to “center-right” on the question of the role of government in regulating business. Rather, a fundamental shift similar to that which ushered in the New Deal in the 1930s would have been realized. That Greenspan’s “ideational moment” had not registered in the campaigns or the electorate itself at least by 2012 can be seen from the fact that Romney called for financial deregulation even though the lack of regulation of mortgage-based securities had played a significant role in the financial crisis. Absent a sustained paradigmatic reflection from a shared experience of the financial crisis, the electorate was vulnerable to the financial-political power of Wall Street as it continued as though legitimately along its familiar trajectory of profit and self-interest. It is significant that even though Obama came out slightly ahead in 2012, the electorate as a body evinced a shift back to its pre-2008 center-right position on government intervention in business.

Absent new ideas and a sustained reflection on the continued viability of extant paradigms, an electorate succumbs to the status quo. More money—much more money—and more time—much more time—does not necessarily mean that an election-cycle makes a dent in the judgment of the popular sovereign—the We the People—come election day. An election-campaign season should be a rather brief yet poignant opportunity for a genuine societal reflection that results in the body politic being in a new place—that is, changed in some way that will reflect on the ensuing governance. I contend that the way Americans elect the president of the Union was by 2012 not only flawed, but also rather ineffectual and even impotent. It is as though a runner were running in circles only to end up panting where he had begun. To use another analogy, it is as though the voters woke up the day after election day still hungry in spite of having eaten so much cotton-candy. The sacrifice of governance alone, not to mention the value in the popular sovereign (the We the People) making its judgment on general policy and candidates, suggests that elections should include new ideas and substantive arguments rather than each side hammering in more of the same through an eternally-repeated stump-speech and “debate” talking-points.

If there is one thing we can discern concerning the voters almost without exception on the morning after voting, according to the Times, “they were glad that the strident and polarizing contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney was ending.” Beyond the proliferation of negative ads, especially in the “swing states,” and the sheer length of the primary and general campaigns, the voter-frustration may reflect a still-unsatisfied hunger for ideas and authentic, substantive discussion of them and the paradigms we construct out of them and what can be termed, ideational values. I suspect that the want of ideas and genuine discourse had existed for so long that few if any Americans realized what was at the core of their discontent regarding the election cycle. The root may go far deeper than Citizens United and even the serial elongation of campaigning at the expense of governance. It may be asked whether a starving man will eat if he does not realize he is starving.


Jackie Calmes and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Electorate Reverts to a Familiar Partisan Divide,” The New York Times, November 7, 2012.

Susan Saulny, “The Most Sought-After Voters Were No Longer Flattered by the Attention,” The New York Times, November 7, 2012.

Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, “Focus Is On Economy As Voters Choose,” The New York Times, November 7, 2012.

Michael Shear, “As Electorate Changes, Fresh Worry for G.O.P.” The New York Times, November 8, 2012.

Peter Baker, “Obama Wins a Clear Victory, but Balance of Power Is Unchanged in Washington,” The New York Times, November 8, 2012.

Sara Murray and Patrick O’Connor, “How Race Slipped Away From Romney,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2012.