Four years ago, the first black man to become President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, was talking about “change” and “hope”. Four years later, his message to take the country “forward” has been rewarded with re-election. So, now that re-election is in the bag, what should President Obama do – especially for his African-American constituency who voted for him in their millions?, Leslie Goffe reports from Washington DC.
Barack Obama is, to quote poet Aime Cesaire, “at the rendezvous of victory”. He is expected to achieve everything in his second term as President of the United States of America that he was prevented from achieving in his first, frustrating term in office. “The single most important thing we want to achieve,” the Republican senator, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had declared, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
The Republicans did their very best to convince Americans that their country’s first black president was not a fit or qualified commander in chief. They stymied his stimulus plans; caused the government to default on its debt; and caused the country’s credit rating to crash – all this to turn voters against Obama’s re-election.
But despite the very real obstacles placed in Obama’s path, his opponents failed to limit him to just one term, and make of him an historical aberration and accident of American political history.
When it became clear early on Election Night, 6 November 2012, that Obama had won a second term in office, beating Mitt Romney by more than 3 million votes and running up 62 more electoral college votes than the 270 needed to secure a win (the final tally was 332 for Obama against 206 for Romney), far right Republicans began to weep and wail and gnash their teeth.
“The white establishment is now the minority,” wailed the conservative TV pundit, Bill O’Reilly, as state after state voted for Obama. Only the former slave-owning states in America’s Deep South stood behind Romney. But they did not have enough electoral-college votes to make Romney president.
It was a shock to the senses of the Republican money-men who spent close to a billion dollars to get Romney elected, to watch on Election Night as battleground states (where they had spent so much money on TV ads vilifying Obama) went one after another to Obama.
So distressed was the rightwing radio host, Rush Limbaugh, that he could not sleep. “I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered,” said Limbaugh, a hero of America’s angry rightwing community. “I went to bed last night thinking we’ve lost the country.”
The Republicans had convinced themselves that Mitt Romney would win because he had enjoyed success in the presidential debates and because highly questionable polls convinced them that the Mormon from Michigan would beat President Obama in a landslide.
Indeed, so convinced was Romney of victory that his campaign managers spent 25,000 dollars on fireworks for a victory celebration that, sadly for him, would never take place.
Worse than this, Romney prepared an acceptance speech but not a loser’s speech. This is, in part, why Romney waited so long on Election Night to concede defeat, and why a hastily written concession speech, which he delivered through teary, bloodshot eyes, was one of the shortest in American political history.
“Shell-shocked” is how one of Romney’s senior aides described him after the beating Obama gave him. This victory has given Obama the opportunity to finish what he started in his first term. In 2008, he said he believed in “hope” and in “change.” In 2012, he says he believes in going “forward”.
“We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America,” President Obama said in his acceptance speech. “That’s where we need to go – forward.” On Election Day, Obama’s volunteers knocked, they said, on 7 million doors, handed out hundreds of thousands of campaign leaflets, and called close to a million people on the phone to remind them not to forget to vote. Obama’s core constituency – African-Americans, Hispanics and young whites – needed no reminding. They voted for him in record numbers in 2008, and they were going to vote for him in record numbers in 2012.
Obama pointed to the importance of the Hispanic vote in an interview before the election. “Should I win a second term, a big reason is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community,” Obama dared to say.
It was true. Romney, whose own father was born in Mexico, in the country’s northwestern state of Chihuahua, had been warned when discussing immigration to use the term “undocumented immigrants” instead of “illegal immigrants”, which many feel is offensive.
But Romney decided against this and elected to use the term “illegals” during a presidential debate.
Unashamed, Romney declared that when he became president, he would get so tough on “illegals” they would “self deport” themselves rather than face pursuit by the police and prosecution by the courts. This kind of talk ensured Hispanic-Americans – many of whom have relatives who are undocumented – would vote solidly for Obama.
“You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama,” predicted the conservative pundit and Romney supporter Bill O’Reilly on his TV talkshow on Election Night. “And women,” O’Reilly conceded ruefully, “will probably break President Obama’s way.” He was right. Women did break for Obama. They wanted to break with the past.
Since the election, there has been much bloodletting in the Republican Party. Some Republicans have accused Romney’s campaign team of having wasted money and time campaigning in states where Romney had no chance of winning, and failing to campaign where Romney had a real chance of picking up votes.
But what Republicans have been entirely unwilling to address is the real reason Romney lost and Obama won. Obama had broad appeal. Romney had limited appeal.
Romney, the numbers show, appealed almost entirely to whites, a fast dwindling portion of the US voting population. In 1980, whites cast about 90% of all votes. That number is now down to 72%. Meanwhile, more than half the children born in America in 2012, according to the US Census Bureau, were either Hispanic, black, or Asian.
No wonder Bill O’Reilly is worried for the future of White America! “The demographics are changing,” says O’Reilly, an Irish-American distressed at the changing face of the United States. “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
O’Reilly is correct. This is not his, or his father’s, or his grandfather’s America anymore. White people have not, of course, relinquished power in the US – they still have the real power in the country, economic power! Political power is another matter, and it appears to be slipping. And the white rightwing is not happy about that.
“It’s going to take some real thinking about what happened here, if what appears to be happening is so,” said the conservative Peggy Noonan. The future is looking black for Noonan and others like her. She had expected the coalition of women, blacks, young people and Hispanics that elected Obama in 2008 to be disinterested by now and thus play no real role in the 2012 elections. But she and the Republicans were wrong about this.
Obama won 61% of the votes of the youth in 2008. In 2012, that number went up five points to 66%. And, though some feared African-Americans would not bother to come out and vote for Obama in
the record numbers they had done four years ago, they did come out – and their support for Obama was as high or higher than ever.
And the support of Latino, or Hispanic-Americans, also went up. An enormous 71% of Latinos, the highest percentage in almost 20 years, voted for the Democratic candidate in 2012.
But now that Obama has won re-election, what should his supporters expect in the second term?
“The best is yet to come,” the president promised in his acceptance speech. Let’s hope so.
Alongside tax reform, most people are convinced that the Democrats and Republicans will come together to pass a comprehensive immigration bill – a 2008 campaign promise that Obama has so far done little about. Most people believe that such legislation, which would grant amnesty and legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, would be impossible for Republicans to oppose without alienating the Hispanic voters they hope to attract in the future.
Now that the importance of the Hispanic vote has been made clear to today’s Republicans, Obama thinks they will join him soon in passing the comprehensive immigration reform he envisages. “I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done,” Obama has said.
So, it sounds as though a key part of the coalition that elected Obama to a second term will get what it wants. Now, what about African-Americans, who once again voted in record numbers for Obama? Will he give them what they want?
So far, the president, despite prodding in an interview in Ebony magazine in November, has been vague on the subject, preferring instead to say that African-Americans stand to benefit, as will Americans of all colours, from the race-neutral legislation he has passed, such as Obamacare, which will extend health care coverage to millions of Americans.
It is clear that thus far Obama has no plans to introduce any race specific legislation designed at uplifting African-Americans. But he would be in good company if he did pass such legislation. In March 1961, less than two months after becoming president, John F. Kennedy signed into law an important “affirmative action” measure which ensured that African-Americans were accepted into universities and were offered jobs that they would otherwise not have been considered for.
President Lyndon Johnson, too, used the presidency to aid African-Americans. He passed a host of laws in the 1960s that opened doors long closed to black Americans. Had Presidents Kennedy and Johnson elected to be race neutral, qualified black people like Obama himself would likely have remained in neutral, and gone nowhere.
Melissa Harris-Perry, the African-American academic and author who interviewed Obama for the November issue of Ebony magazine, took exception with the president’s race-neutral stance. “His re-election does not ensure, in any direct or easy way, that the doors of opportunity will be opened any wider for future generations of black Americans,” said a dismayed Harris-Perry.
It is too early yet to judge the president. Who can say exactly what he will do, and won’t do, in his second term? Let’s hope that when he begins his second term, he remembers what Aime Cesaire says in his poem, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land:
“It is not true that the work of a man is finished/that we have nothing more to do in the world/ that we are just parasites in the world/ that it is enough for us to walk in step with the world/For the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all/The violence entrenched in the recess of his passion/And no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and/There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory.”