Hope Over Experience: A divided country gives Obama a second chance

by WSJ, Editorial

President Obama won one of the narrower re-elections in modern times Tuesday, eking out a second term with a fraction of his 7.3% margin of 2008, in a polarized country with the opposition GOP retaining and still dominating the House. Given that second Presidential terms are rarely better than the first, this is best described as the voters doubling down on hope over experience.

Mr. Obama’s campaign stitched together a shrunken but still decisive version of his 2008 coalition—single women, the young and culturally liberal, government and other unions workers, and especially minority voters.

He said little during the campaign about his first term and even less about his plans for a second. Instead his strategy was to portray Mitt Romney as a plutocrat and intolerant threat to each of those voting blocs. No contraception for women. No green cards for immigrants. A return to Jim Crow via voter ID laws. No Pell grants for college.

This was all a caricature even by the standards of modern politics. But it worked with brutal efficiency—the definition of winning ugly. Mr. Obama was able to patch together just enough of these voting groups to prevail even as he lost independents and won only 40% of the overall white vote, according to the exit polls. His campaign’s turnout machine was as effective as advertised in getting Democratic partisans to the polls.

Mr. Obama also benefitted from his long run of extraordinary good luck. Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast a week before Election Day, letting him rise for a few days above the partisanship that has defined his first term. The storm changed the campaign conversation and blunted Mr. Romney’s momentum. The exit polls show that late-deciders went for the incumbent this year when they typically break for the challenger.

The President owes a debt as well to a pair of Republican appointees in government—John Roberts and Ben Bernanke. By joining four liberals on the Supreme Court in upholding ObamaCare in June, Chief Justice Roberts provided a salve of legitimacy to the President’s deeply unpopular health-care law. It also helped him unify his party around something to protect in an otherwise aimless second term.

As for the Federal Reserve Chairman, Mr. Bernanke’s latest round of quantitative easing was an invaluable in-kind contribution to the President in the final election weeks. It helped to lift asset prices, including the stock market, which contributed to rising consumer confidence and helped to counter the damage to investment and hiring from Mr. Obama’s policies.

Mr. Romney is one of the least natural politicians of our era, but he is a laudable man who ran a spirited campaign on a reform agenda, especially after the first debate on October 3. He took the risk of putting Paul Ryan on the ticket, and the Congressman proved to be a campaign asset, even if he couldn’t overcome the strong Democratic turnout in Wisconsin.

The exit polls show the two campaigns fought Medicare essentially to a draw in Florida, despite the Democratic attempt to demagogue the Romney-Ryan Medicare reform. Many seniors seem to understand that ObamaCare poses a far greater threat to the future of Medicare than does opening the rickety program to private insurance options.

Yet Mr. Romney also made some fateful strategic errors. He took too long to defend his Bain Capital record, letting the Obama campaign pummel him with more than $100 million in unanswered attack ads from May through July. He then devoted too much of the GOP convention to rehabilitating his own image to the detriment of laying out an agenda. Only in the first debate did voters get to see Mr. Romney explain his Medicare and tax reform plans in clear, reasonable terms—and he rose in the polls.

It appears he also failed to distinguish his economic plan enough from the memory of George W. Bush’s. Mr. Obama kept telling voters he needed more time to fix the economy, however implausibly, but voters seem to have believed him in the end. More voters in the exit polls blamed Mr. Bush for the economy than they did the current President.

Perhaps most damaging, Mr. Romney failed to appeal more creatively to minority voters, especially Hispanics. His single worst decision may have been to challenge Texas Governor Rick Perry in the primaries by running to his right on immigration. Mr. Romney didn’t need to do this given that Mr. Perry was clearly unprepared for a national campaign, and given the weakness of the other GOP candidates. (Tim Pawlenty had dropped out.)

Mr. Romney missed later chances to move to the middle on immigration reform, especially Senator Marco Rubio’s compromise on the Dream Act for young immigrants brought here by their parents. This created the opening for Mr. Obama to implement the core of the Dream Act by executive order, however illegally, and boost his image with Hispanic voters.

The exit polls show that Mr. Romney did even worse among Hispanics than John McCain in 2008, and we may learn in coming days that this was the margin in some swing states. The GOP needs to leave its anti-immigration absolutists behind.


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. The two sides will have to reach some compromise on the tax cliff, the spending sequester and the debt limit, but Speaker John Boehner can negotiate knowing he has as much of a mandate as the President.

These columns have viewed this election as more consequential than others for a single reason—ObamaCare. Tax rates do economic damage when they rise, but they can be cut again. Regulations can be adapted to or phased out. Spending can be cut. But the Affordable Care Act will spread like termites in the national economy and public fisc. Mr. Obama will no doubt use his second term to consolidate this liberal entitlement dream, with its ultimate goal of single-payer health care.

Some of our conservative friends will argue that Mr. Obama’s victory thus represents a decline in national virtue and a tipping point in favor of the “takers” over the makers. They will say the middle class chose Mr. Obama’s government blandishments over Mr. Romney’s opportunity society. We don’t think such a narrow victory of an incumbent President who continues to be personally admired justifies such a conclusion.

Perhaps this fear will be realized over time, but such a fate continues to be in our hands. There are few permanent victories or defeats in American politics, and Tuesday wasn’t one of them. The battle for liberty begins anew this morning.

A version of this article appeared November 7, 2012, on page A24 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hope Over Experience.

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