I write this just after returning from McCormick Place where I listened to President Barack Obama deliver one of the best speeches of his political career. My back, legs and feet ache from standing on the unforgiving concrete for six-and-a-half hours while we waited for the news of Obama’s re-election, for Mitt Romney to write his concession speech, and for Obama to deliver his.
In the days ahead there will be time for hand-wringing about the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the Northeast will no doubt suffer further devastation, and we can all start freaking out about whatever useless story of the moment consumes the media. For now, however, allow me to gloat about the incontrovertible shift in American politics that is underway.
As I’ve been saying since June, there was never a moment I didn’t think he’d win another term. The win was not as decisive as 2008, but in the end Obama cleaned up the swing states and became the first Democrat since FDR to get re-elected with 50% of the vote. But it’s not just that Obama won. It’s that he was elected at the very beginning of an existential economic crisis that would define his entire first term. He also faced an opposition that cynically used that crisis as well as every legislative trick to attempt to destroy him. The right-wing media has been relentless and hideous in its attempts to discredit him. Even as he passed two enormous, landmark pieces of legislation that will benefit Americans for years to come in the Recovery Act and generations to come in Obamacare, that opposition was willing to sink to basically whatever depths it could find in the bottom-feeding dredges of political sabotage, including fabricating a debt-ceiling crisis in order to make him unelectable in 2012. He then faced the best-financed presidential challenger in American history along with a sea of dark money.
And not only did Obama survive it, he triumphed in re-election. With a fired-up conservative base wishing to defeat a president they viewed as an illegitimate socialist (“the worst president ever” we so often heard) Republicans really didn’t even come close. Though the individual state races had narrow margins, anyone who was actually paying attention to the polling numbers throughout the campaign understood they had basically no way to 271 electoral votes. Slim though the popular vote margin may be, the Obama coalition has always been about bringing new voters to the polls where they are needed (for instance, do you think if there was no electoral college the campaign wouldn’t have turned out enough new voters in California and New York to eat Romney-Ryan alive?). Also, the Republican candidate has now lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections.
Furthermore, though the Republicans retained leadership in the House (numerous retiring Democrats and gerrymandered districts from 2010 put this safely out of reach) two years ago they seemed all but assured to win control of the Senate. As of this writing Obama’s party will not only retain control but possibly pick up two seats. This freshman class will replace well known rat-fink Joe Lieberman with the more liberal Chris Murphy, install the poster child for progressives, Elizabeth Warren, in Massachusetts (likely permanently), defeated right-wing clowns Todd Aiken and Richard Murdouck in two states Republicans should have easily won, and elected Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, against a popular former governor who was supposed to have a cake-walk.
Furthermore, referendums legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado, the first states to do so. Maine and Maryland became the first two states to approve gay marriage through ballot initiatives, while Washington appears it will follow suit as well.
What this proves is 2008 was no fluke, that the country is getting more progressive, more tolerant, and yes, that we do want to tax millionaires more before we cut Head Start for kids. In his speech, Obama identified several causes that offer the next targets in this resurgence: climate change, voter suppression, and immigration reform.
But he also spoke to something I have been railing about since early in his presidency, which is that part of the strategy of the status quo is to convince people that voting doesn’t matter, the two parties are the same, nothing changes, wah-wah-blah-blah. Cynicism and despair and ironic distance and “disappointment” are tools of that status quo as much as money is.
The powers-that-be want you to be cynical, they want you to believe nothing ever changes, and when someone comes along—someone who tells you that things can be different and then goes out and tries to do just that—they want you to be disappointed in him.
Yet election 2012 put the ball firmly back on one side of the court. Barack Obama is again our president, and in these next four years he—and we—have an unprecedented chance to move forward on climate, immigration, employment, a fairer tax system and gay rights. Call it what you want, but I’ll call it—unironically, uncynically, unjadedly—hope.