For the first time since 1928, neither the incumbent president nor the vice president were in the running for their party’s nomination. The presidential election was totally up for grabs! Would voters want someone who would continue the policies of President Bush? Or were they hoping for a… change?
The Last Four Years
Despite a promising start to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, attacks on military personnel and civilians increased dramatically in 2006. It quickly became clear that George W. Bush’s administration did not have well-planned exit strategies for either country. Bush responded to the recent uptick in violence by expanding US involvement. In Afghanistan, he increased the number of troops from about 20,000 to 30,000 over two years. Al Qaeda and the Taliban continued to flee across the eastern border into Pakistan. To avoid potential conflicts that could result from the presence of US ground troops, Pakistan agreed to lead the search for the terrorists within their borders. Unfortunately, rising tensions with India distracted Pakistan from making a substantial effort. Bush kept his promise not to send troops and instead relied on missile strikes and surveillance by unmanned aerial drones. His response in Iraq followed a similar strategy. A “surge” of 20,000 additional troops were deployed in January, 2007. American forces patrolled cities alongside the Iraqi military to prepare them to take a more independent role in the future. Although American military deaths were at their highest in the first few months of the surge, they declined over 60% by the end of 2008. The Bush Administration developed plans for withdrawal in 2011.
President Bush’s leadership became the target of increased criticism in his second term. The most prominent example was his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in August, 2005. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began preparations before the storm made landfall, but only intended to support the response of state and local officials. The mayor of New Orleans ordered a voluntary evacuation of the city. Bush pressed Louisiana’s governor to make it mandatory, but by the time the order was amended, it was too late for many residents to leave. New Orleans suffered the most severe damage. 80% of the city was flooded, leaving tens of thousands stranded, many calling for help from rooftops. Looting and violence soon became widespread. Not enough rescue workers and supplies were available. The Bush Administration was accused of negligence and even racism. Photos of the President observing the destruction from an airplane window made him seem detached and distant. He faced additional criticism when he praised the head of FEMA for the agency’s performance. Bush passed the blame to the state and local authorities, arguing that it was typical for the federal government to take a secondary role in relief efforts. He worked with Congress to provide $126 billion to rebuild the region, but his administration’s mishandling of the crisis contributed to big Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm elections.
Bush’s reputation was damaged even further as the economy declined, beginning in late 2007. Sensing the looming crisis, the federal government guaranteed $29 billion in assets of the banking giant Bear Sterns and passed a $268 billion stimulus package. The situation deteriorated rapidly in September, 2008, when another large bank, Lehman Brothers, declared bankruptcy. This resulted in a plummeting stock market. In October, the Dow Jones was 5,500 points lower than its high one year earlier. Consumer spending fell and thousands of workers lost their jobs. The main cause of the crisis was the housing market. Deregulation going as far back as the Reagan years allowed banks to bundle together risky mortgages and sell them to investors and other large institutions. When low-income borrowers began defaulting on their loans, the housing bubble burst. The number of repossessed houses doubled in a year. Bank were stuck with trillions of dollars in toxic assets. Credit seized up, threatening a crisis the size of the Great Depression. In October, Bush signed the creation of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) to provide $700 billion to banks, credit markets, the auto industry, and Americans facing home foreclosure. The spending needed to prevent a global economic meltdown, in addition to the expensive War on Terror, sent the federal deficit skyrocketing.
After 9/11, President Bush had one of the highest presidential approval ratings of all time. At the end of his term, he had one of the lowest. His administration had been overwhelmed with disasters. The lack of exit strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq severely reduced public support. The failed responses to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis further highlighted their incompetence. Anti-establishment feeling was high and most voters wanted a dramatic departure from the Bush years.
Bush’s unpopularity made 2008 a particularly important election for Democrats. Candidates for the party’s nomination included Delaware Senator Joe Biden (who previously ran in 1988), Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich (known for voting against the Iraq War), and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (hoping to be the first Latino-American nominee). The three leading contenders were North Carolina Senator John Edwards, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Edwards was returning from a 2004 run, which ended in his selection as John Kerry’s running mate. Clinton and Obama were both running to be historic “firsts” — hoping to be the first female nominee and first African American nominee of a major party. Clinton, who turned her popularity as First Lady into a successful Senate campaign in 2000, emphasized her political experience. Her time in Washington, however, came with baggage, mainly due to her support for the now-unpopular Iraq War. Obama, on the other hand, ran on his youth (he turned 47 in 2008) and outsider status. A former community organizer, best-selling author, and state senator, Obama joined the US Senate in 2004 and gained national fame for his inspiring convention speech that same year. Since he was not in Congress at the beginning of the Iraq War, he was able to make a tough argument against fellow Democrats who failed to see through the Bush Administration’s misleading WMD claims. He built a grassroots following of African Americans and young liberals. Like Howard Dean four years earlier, he relied heavily on internet fundraising.
Hillary Clinton held the initial polling lead, even with African Americans, who supported her husband and doubted Obama’s long-term viability. Obama surpassed expectations, however, by matching Clinton’s and Edwards’ fundraising throughout 2007. Perhaps the most consequential vote of the primary season was the first — the Iowa caucus. Obama won the contest by eight points, with Edwards in second and Clinton in third. Obama’s victory proved to black voters that he could win, even with white Midwesterners. Although Clinton rebounded with a win in New Hampshire, Obama carried South Carolina with overwhelming black support. After placing third in his home region (and with a sex scandal on the horizon), John Edwards dropped out of the race. Super Tuesday resulted in a near-tie between Clinton and Obama, setting up the rest of the race to be a fierce, two-way battle.
Obama faced a few controversies as the race progressed. A video surfaced of his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, making controversial statements, such as blaming the US for 9/11, and claiming that the federal government invented HIV to kill black people. Obama denounced Wright’s statements. Similarly, he was caught on tape criticizing Midwesterners for “cling[ing] to guns or religion.” These issues were exploited by the Clinton campaign to make Obama seem elitist and out-of-touch. Clinton won twenty primaries and most of the large states, like California, Texas, and New York. Obama won nineteen states and notably out-organized Clinton in caucuses. In the end, Obama was victorious in the delegate count. Clinton finally ended her campaign on June 7. Obama selected Joe Biden as his running mate, whose Senate experience, foreign affairs knowledge, and appeal with working-class white voters helped balance the ticket.
Without any members of the Bush Administration in the running, the Republican Party also produced a large field of candidates. The list included former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (son of former Michigan Governor George Romney), Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (also an actor on Law & Order), and Texas Representative Ron Paul (formerly the 1988 Libertarian presidential candidate). The frontrunners were former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Senator John McCain, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Giuliani relied heavily on his experience as mayor during 9/11, a fact that he referenced relentlessly. McCain, a Vietnam war hero and POW, was known as a moderate “maverick,” who was popular with independents. He was the closest competitor to George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries. His age (72 in 2008) was an issue for some voters. The religious right was represented by Huckabee, who was also a minister.
Rudy Giuliani led in the polls throughout 2007, but struggled to attract social conservatives due to his pro-choice stance on abortion. Iowa proved surprising for the Republicans, too, with the victory going to Mike Huckabee. John McCain won New Hampshire and secured the nomination with big wins on Super Tuesday. He stole Obama’s thunder by announcing his running mate right at the end of the Democratic National Convention. In a completely unexpected move, he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. She was the second woman ever on a ticket for a major party. At 44, Palin balanced McCain’s age, and helped his appeal with social conservatives. Her reform record and outsider status paired well with McCain’s maverick image.
Like Clinton, McCain relied on his experience, arguing that America needed a leader who knew the political system. Initial polls gave McCain a narrow lead, which dwindled in mid-September as the economy worsened. McCain distanced himself from Bush as much as possible. His campaign’s focus was working-class Americans. Following the usual Republican template, Republicans attempted to create an image of Obama as an out-of-touch, liberal elitist. McCain frequently referenced “Joe the Plumber,” an attendee of an Obama campaign event, who expressed concern over the candidate’s tax policy for small businesses. Two major gaffes weakened this strategy. In one speech, McCain argued that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” This soundbite was easy fodder for the Obama campaign, who portrayed McCain as dismissive towards the financial crisis. His other misstep came in an interview when he was unable to recall how many houses he owned. This damaged his credibility with the multitude of voters struggling to fend of foreclosure. To his credit, McCain did not employ racist conspiracies about Obama’s citizenship or religion advanced by many other conservatives.
Though inexperienced, Obama continued to campaign on themes of hope and change, best exemplified in his “Yes We Can” slogan. Similar to Bill Clinton’s strategy against Bob Dole in 1996, he avoided attacking McCain’s age directly, instead implying that his ideas were old. His main policy goals were universal health care and ending the War on Terror. Through his grassroots and online support, he was easily able to outspend McCain. He appeared calm and confident in debates, reassuring voters of his competency.
On the vice-presidential side, Biden was seen as a much more qualified choice than Palin. In interviews, most notably with Katie Couric, Palin appeared unfamiliar with many major issues, which was a source of ridicule. The perceived misstep of her selection as running mate prompted a stronger vetting process in future campaigns.
2008 saw the highest voter turnout since 1968. Obama carried traditionally blue states in the Northeast, West Coast, and Great Lakes regions, while also winning some usually red states in the South and Midwest. He was the first candidate to split Nebraska’s vote since the state separated its electoral districts in 1992. Exit polls showed that the two candidates broke even among voters who participated in the 2004 election, but Obama secured the majority of first-time voters. He overwhelmingly won African Americans and voters under 35. McCain did best with voters over 60.
232 years after the country’s founding, Barack Obama became the first African American president! The electoral score was 365-173. Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote, to McCain’s 45.7%, a blowout by modern standards. Democrats also kept control of the House and Senate.
What Did It Say About America?
Coming out of the Bush years, Americans wanted change more than experience. Obama’s victory gave hope for a more equal and fair society. In his acceptance speech, he declared, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Although McCain conceded graciously, many conservatives would rely on racist attacks throughout Obama’s time in office. Meanwhile, perceived favoritism towards Obama by the “mainstream media” would prompt backlash from the right in the future. Obama introduced a new voter base to the Democratic Party, partly thanks to his campaign’s use of internet fundraising. Though we can’t know it yet, I think 2008 will be a good candidate for marking a new party system.
The 2008 election was extremely formative for the Millennial generation’s understanding of politics. In some sense, it gave us false hope for how American politics worked. Republicans paid the price for Bush’s actions and the good guys won. Obama ran a grassroots campaign and defied the establishment with hope and change. But things would not be easy for the young president.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! Obama faces a lot of criticism (both from the right and left), but it’s pretty easy to make the case for him as the best modern president because his competition is so weak! From Hoover to Bush to Trump, it’s no coincidence that huge environmental and economic crises often occur under Republican administrations. The conservative viewpoint is that the federal government simply should not do things. It makes a big difference to the American public to have a president who actually seems like he wants to help. It gives us…