Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
Now that Barack Obama has won a second term, let's look at some of the reasons for his victory in what was predicted as a closely run-race, and the challenges immediately before him.
It was never easy for Obama, despite killing Osama Bin Laden, despite pulling American troops out of Iraq, despite passing PPACP (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Pact,) popularly known as Obamacare, a Federal statute signed into a law aimed at decreasing the number of uninsured Americans and reducing the costs of healthcare which was vociferously opposed by all 178 Republican members of the House, despite helping the economy revive marginally and despite bailing out the car industry. The media coverage constantly said that it was a close race, and the difference between the two candidates, Obama and Mitt Romney, only lessened after the first debate, the victory for which all polls gave to Romney.
However, Obama's defeat in the first Presidential debate on October 3 proved providential. As his spin team watched aghast, Romney trounced the president who increasingly exhibited poor body language, long-winded answers and a patronising, professorial attitude. The defeat forced Obama to regard Romney as a serious challenge. An enormous and extremely sophisticated database containing the names of millions of undecided voters and possible supporters was drawn up by social scientists and these people were systematically contacted through thousands of phone calls made every night.
Another factor was the presence of a strange ally, Bill Clinton, who was, only four years ago, Obama's strenuous opponent as Hillary tried to win the Democratic nomination. Apart from giving the best speech in the Democratic National Convention, where he said that he wanted to nominate a man who was "cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside," the former President has earned Obama's plaudit of "The Master." He has campaigned relentlessly for Obama, to the extent that he was as hoarse as the two candidates on the last day of the campaign, and has been quick to advise David Axelrod and Jim Messina, Obama's campaign managers. For example, it was his idea to present Romney as anti-Medicare and Medicaid in TV ads in Florida. He urged that Obama not lose touch with base voters in battleground states. Every time he spoke he reminded the crowd that he was the only President in recent history to leave a budget surplus-hence his endorsement of Obama's economic plan meant something.
As a result of Clinton's canny advice and the excellent management of Axelrod and Messina, the swing states of Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin almost all went to Obama. In Ohio, a deciding factor had definitely been Obama's bailout of the ailing American car industry.
Nature too seemed to be on Obama's side. Barely ten days before Election Day, as Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East coast, bringing an iconic city like New York to its knees, Obama took three days off from his campaign to make sure Americans were safe, sheltered, fed and warm. And the storm proved to be a blessing in disguise because overnight the headlines changed from the poor economy, taxes, deficit, debt and lack of jobs to Sandy's destruction. People who had earlier been his opponents became Obama's allies when they saw the speed and efficiency with which he responded to the crisis. Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, praised Obama; Republican Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg endorsed Obama. And as a result of Sandy, climate change and global warming once more became serious political issues, something that Romney had failed to recognise. "I am not in this race to slow the rise of oceans," he had remarked testily earlier in his campaign.
One of the major reasons for Obama's victory is the changing demographic in US elections. 60% of Americans under 30 voted for Obama while the majority of those over 65 years voted for Romney. Obama appealed to the rainbow coalition of minorities, be they Latino voters, Asian American, women, gays and lesbians or first time voters. 45% of Obama's vote was made up of these groups. The future voted for Obama, the past for Romney. In fact, many say that Obama's appeal to Latino voters may have cost Romney the election. Obama won a staggering 71% of the Latino vote. The Latino population of the US has grown 43% between 200 and 2010 and has now passed the 50 million mark. One in six Americans now claims Latino heritage. One of the reasons for the Latino voters was probably Obama's positive stance on immigration. While Romney advocated self-deportation and bruised Latino sentiments by using the pejorative terms "illegals," Obama supported the Dream Act, which allows permanent residency to children of illegal immigrants who graduate from high school. Latina celebrities, such as the actress Eva Longoria, certainly helped Obama by campaigning vociferously for him.
The Republicans were increasingly seen as a party of white, aged men who were out of touch with the fact that social liberalism was on the rise in the US. Eight years ago, the endorsement of gay marriage probably cost John Kerry the presidential election; however, the situation is very different today. In 2012, Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage and in Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, was elected as the first openly lesbian senator.
Patriarchal and patronising speculation about the ownership women's bodies and the ignoring of women's demand for equal pay, (disparity in pay scales as a result of gender is something that we in India will find difficult to fathom) also proved expensive for the Republican party. Think of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock's statement that pregnancy resulting from rape was "something that God intended to happen." Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate from Massachusetts, won the Senate race because she insisted on fighting for equal pay for women who work their "tails off."
As Roger Cohen puts it, while Romney stood for rugged individualism and the independence of his Mormon heritage, Obama represented and appealed to a more contemporary, "complex and interdependent" America. Democrats believe, as Bill Clinton stated in the Democratic National Convention, that "We are all in this together is a far better philosophy than you are on your own."
The road ahead is not going to be easy. At home in the US there is the looming fiscal cliff, the possibility of a Senate gridlock, climate change and the urgent need for the creation of jobs. Abroad Obama faces the European debt crisis, the Syrian crisis and terrorist threats. But the way, as his campaign told the world, can only be Forward.