Obama’s Win: An Inflection Point

Here's why the president's re-election is more important than his win in 2008.

President Barack Obama (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — For a year I have been telling people that the 2012 presidential contest is far more important than the 2008 election. Yes, in 2008 America elected its first African-American president in Barack Obama. This was a profoundly historic achievement no matter how you figure it. But that outcome, to borrow some apt social science jargon, was over-determined.

Say what? Here’s why: George W. Bush was a lame duck incumbent in 2008. No matter what, he was out. The sense was endemic that Bush’s was a failed presidency, involving a deeply polarized nation, two misguided wars, the massive incompetence and indifference seen in Katrina and an imploding economy. In such a context, a Democrat, any Democrat, was expected to win.

And, indeed, virtually all of the arid econometric models that forecast elections predicted a Democratic victory, with roughly 53 percent of the popular vote. This is exactly what Obama got — even as an African American claiming a major party nomination for the first time in the history of the nation.

Why does 2012 matter more? This election is about who controls the terms of an unfolding future. Bush and Republicans were out of power with certainty in 2008. Republicans committed themselves to making Obama a one-term president, partly on the premise that his success was merely a reaction against Bush’s particular failures, not a repudiation of the Republican agenda or, at a deeper level, of the ideas and people who would drive the direction of American politics. The outcome of the 2012 election is about telling them they’re wrong!

A New Direction

The future of America is not simply about the agenda of fundamentalist Christians, or anti-government zealots or affluent, older white men. This election was about an America that is increasingly diverse. It was about an America that is increasingly made up of people of color, especially Latinos. It was about an America that is tired of taxes and economic policies that favor bankers and the very wealthy, as opposed to the middle and working classes and Main Street America. It was about an America that respects the rights of gays and lesbians and the bodies of women, as well as the right of women to control their own bodies. 

Let’s be honest — Republicans ran a campaign of retrenchment. The party, despite an effort by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to claim more moderate positions in the final days of the campaign, ran on the most backward-looking party platform in some time. The party of Romney chose to favor the powerful and privileged, inequality and intolerance, whether the issue was the undocumented among us and how to deal with immigration; abortion and women’s rights; the rights of gays and lesbians; or whether our tax code should continue to privilege the rich and powerful or call for them to carry a greater share of the tax burden. 

This election, therefore, is an inflection point. It is the consolidation, first and foremost, of a multiracial progressive Obama coalition that is now the dominant electoral force in American national politics. Republicans will never again, so long as their policy agenda remains as it is, command a winning national coalition. Too many fundamental social trends run against it. A mix of more progressive white voters — especially white women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and other people of color — now sets the national agenda.