As President Barack Obama begins his second term in office (after his inauguration on 21 January), Professor Said Adejumobi looks at the new dynamics shaping American society
In the run-up to America’s November 2012 elections, many opinion polls did not give President Barack Obama a clear win. Some predicted that it was going to be a close race in which he may win by a few votes. Others predicted that Obama may turn out to be a one-term president yielding victory to his challenger, Mitt Romney. The picture was mixed and the predictions were confusing, with personal and sectarian biases replacing scientific analysis in America’s mainstream media.
From a distance, I did not think Obama ran a good political campaign with clear messages. He spent some time on Romney’s deficiencies, trying to convince the voters that Romney was inconsistent in his positions and therefore could not be trusted with managing the country.
In contrast, he wanted to portray himself as a man of his words, who kept the electoral promises he had made four years ago. This may be good, but it beclouded Obama’s own messages of success.
As a student of politics, I thought Obama would have had two clear messages in his campaign based on his successes. These messages could have centred on national security and the economy.
Obama could possibly have posed two major questions to the electorate as his catch points. These are: Is America safer than it was four years ago? Is the American economy better than what it was four years ago? The answers to these two questions would have been a big Yes!
The American economy may not be growing at a high rate, but it is not in the woods. The economy quickly went out of recession and maintained an equilibrium under Obama. America’s contemporaries in Europe are in a dip and the mess is getting messier! This was lost in Obama’s unclear campaign messages.
However, what Obama appeared to have lost in formal campaign messages, he gained in organisational wizardry and long term strategic planning in mapping America’s social diversity and its changing demographic landscape.
The reality of America as an immigrant country with a vast minority population from around the world; the reality of a teeming poor and middle class; the reality of women as a powerful political force; and the reality of a post-modernist society, in which young people are frenzied around social media and in search of a political identity unencumbered by the beliefs and affiliations of their parents, were things Obama tapped into to win a decisive victory.
His campaign team, which hit the ground running after his first term victory, disaggregated what is now known as the “big data”, looking closely at the demographic dispersion of American society – the tastes, preferences and most likely political choices of those groups, and appealing to them in a subtle yet socially connected way!
Obama’s campaign team touched on the most sensitive thing for each social group, hence their dignity as a social category. For women, abortion was an issue; for the poor and elderly, medicare was a nightmare which Obama’s health care legislation took care of; for the homeless, the mortgage rescue by the state was a selling point; and for the Detroit auto workers, Obama was the saviour of their jobs and livelihood.
For the middle class, taxing the rich more was a powerful political message which they wanted to hear. In all this, Obama’s team did an excellent job in marketing him for the long haul!
Many thought Obama’s election four years ago was an accident of history. His colour and race seemed to have been considered as disabilities, which some people thought would not give him a second chance. Indeed, my Kenyan friend, using satire, once asked me: “What is a black man doing in the White House? This must have been an accident of history”.
But what many did not realise is that times have changed and American society has moved a step forward. The social composition of identity has produced a wide diversity un-thought of two decades ago.
Obama’s re-election has several messages and consequences for American society. First, it signifies the capacity of American society to renew and recreate itself, and take a lead in innovative political adventure in the world. This is the basis of the American dream, which is based on the unconventional and what may be considered as heresy.
Second, that all racial groups (including whites) are now political minorities. Alliance building across races and social categories will be key to future election victories.
Third, that no racial group will henceforth claim monopoly of power, as the floodgate is already opened for other groups to make political claims to power at the highest level. Race may henceforth be a lesser factor to capacity, strategy and organisational outlay in electioneering.
Fourth, that sensitivity to the interests of diverse groups will be the clincher of elections in the future!
Finally, that money may be the “milk” of liberal democratic politics, but money at the end of the day may not be decisive. Mitt Romney had more money to spend than Obama in the November election, and the rich and powerful in American society who wanted to earn more but pay little or no tax, supported the moneybag of Romney’s camp. Obama remained undaunted but at the end deflated their candidate.
So, in effect, the winner of the 2012 presidential election is not only Obama, but also the American people and the American spirit – a spirit that defies all odds, and which at every historical conjuncture seeks to renew and re-establish itself! I commend the American spirit! (Prof Adejumobi writes from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)