Obama Won But Has No Mandate

Obama will still need to work with congressional Republicans

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Barack Obama hand his driver's license to an election worker before taking part in early voting at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Chicago.

As Ronald Reagan once famously said, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut!"

The same holds true for me as far as the election of 2012 is concerned. I blew it, which is something most pundits will never concede. All along it has been my belief that the polls were somehow skewed, that the samples reflected an electorate that would be different from what showed up on November 6.

There were plenty of data points that reinforced this impression including the supposed downturn in enthusiasm on the left for President Barack Obama, the fact that Mitt Romney and Obama were running even among women in the closing days of the campaign, and the way that self-described independents were breaking to Romney.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

All of that, however, was not enough to overcome the power of what should be called the Obama Coalition, a group of voters who are wedded to the man and what he represents if not to his ideals. They turned out in numbers sufficient to win him a majority in the electoral college and a second term—even if he ends up losing the popular vote.

In the coming days there will be plenty of finger pointing going around in Republicans circles trying to affix blame for Romney's loss. There will be those who, with some justification, will attack the former Massachusetts governor for failing to engage Obama on key social issues like abortion. This failure to engage left the way clear for the president to paint Romney as the extremist when it is Obama who is more out of step with what the polls tell us the American public believes than the GOP. This means that a lot of votes were potentially left on the table in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan where large numbers of Catholics are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable about the attacks being made on their religious freedom and the administration's support for legalized abortion.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

The laser-like focus of the Romney campaign on the economy, which helped drive Obama's negatives up, never seemed to come to a conclusion. The GOP nominee never quite managed to get across to the electorate just how his being president would make things better for America. He talked about his five point plan a lot but never seemed to be able to translate that into words that resonated with the American voter. Disturbingly, he never seemed to find a way to take on the essential argument that it was Republican policies that created the economic mess and that a return to Republican policies would only make things worse. Even so, he might end up with more votes than Obama, which says something about the tactical effectiveness of his campaign—but tactics alone are not enough to carry the day.

Obama may be re-elected, but clearly without a mandate. He has been given a new lease on life but must, I expect, be on his best behavior over the next few months—which means he must adopt an entirely different style of governing from the one he employed over the last four years. That means taking on tough issues in a bipartisan manner, working with the House and Senate rather than against it, and taking a lead on issues of importance to the country. The closeness of the election—and the reliance on the Obama Coalition to achieve victory—means the majority of the country remains unsure of the direction it wants to go. In electoral terms, Obama won where it counted, but the people are crying out for the politicians in Washington to work together, and not against the popular interests, to fix the problems so many of have to live with each and every day. They would be wise to listen.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.
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