Getting re-elected after a grittily difficult four years was always going to be much harder than getting elected after the economic and military incompetence of the George Bush era. But that is what Barack Obama achieved after a hard pounding campaign and a nail biting contest. His victory wasn’t big. It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t break the mould. It certainly wasn’t inspirational in the way that his win in 2008 was. In places it was wafer-thin. But it was a US presidential win all the same. And the win in 2012 matters just as much as the earlier win did in 2008. In difficult times, it is even, arguably, a greater political achievement. Mr Obama’s win is good for Americans, good for America, and good for the world.
Sometimes in politics, getting re-elected is a much tougher assignment than winning first time round. That is especially true in grim economic times and where early promise has been followed by disappointments, as happened with Mr Obama. Across the world, incumbency has been a lightning conductor rather than a magic wand for a whole generation of politicians who tried to get re-elected when the music of global prosperity stopped. When the downturn happened on their watch – whether they were leaders of the left like Gordon Brown or José Luis Zapatero, or of the right like Nicolas Sarkozy or Silvio Berlusconi – they all paid the price. Times have been just as hard on Mr Obama’s watch. But a combination of fear of Mitt Romney’s alternative and the disciplined resilience of most of the Democratic vote has enabled him to buck the trend, even though he gave a lacklustre performance at times.
Mr Romney came very close to making Mr Obama a one-term president. He did this by performing well in the first televised debate but, more significantly, by shamelessly shifting to the centreground after allowing his earlier campaign to be dominated by the conservative Tea Party agenda. For Republicans, the lesson of Mr Romney’s campaign ought to be that they will only be nationally competitive if they speak for the squeezed middle. When Mr Romney did that he prospered. When he concentrated on the conservative anti-government agenda his vote withered. Tragically for the Republicans – but encouragingly for the Democrats – the party seems almost certain to conclude that the problem in this election was that Mr Romney wasn’t conservative enough. Republicans will be boosted in that error by their successes in the rest of this week’s elections.
Many will look at the narrowness of the 2012 result and conclude that the tribal divide is as strong as ever in American politics. Wednesday’s outcome, after all, had many echoes of the divisively partisan 2000 result. This conclusion may be too pessimistic. The demographics of US politics are moving in the Democrats’ direction if they are smart enough to profit from them. The closeness of this year’s result may in fact reflect the difficult times in which Mr Obama has sought re-election, and a disappointment with his own limitations, not a renewed appetite for governmental gridlock.
In the end Mr Obama owes his second term more to his vast campaign war chest and the ruthless professionalism of his get-out-the-vote machine than he did first time around, when hope and idealism did more to carry him to the White House. It is clear that the ground campaign at local level must have made the difference in the key contests yesterday.
The opinion polls, which have had a good election, picked that up. How much scope Mr Obama now has to pursue a progressive second-term agenda – especially in the face of an undaunted Republican Congress – will remain to be seen. It seems unlikely that Republicans will have learned enough uncomfortable lessons for much to change on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, if Mr Obama’s first presidential election victory was a triumph of the audacity of hope, his second is a triumph for the audacity of good electoral judgment in difficult times. The rest of the world will celebrate that. We join Americans today in wishing Mr Obama every success the second time around.