Barack Obama took office as the nation faced several crises. Four years later, were Americans happy with his performance? Or did they side with the obstructionist Republicans?
The Last Four Years
President Obama’s first priority was to fix the economic crisis left to him by the George W. Bush Administration. The banking and automotive industries were on the verge of collapse, unemployment was near 10%, and many Americans were threatened with home foreclosure. Obama built on Bush’s TARP program by directing an additional $60 billion to bailout automotive companies. The rationale for the TARP bailouts was that some businesses were “too big to fail,” in other words, their bankruptcy would crash the entire country’s economy. Obama urged Congress to pass an $800 billion stimulus package, which was split between state governments, tax cuts for the middle class, and infrastructure projects. The bill was passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress without a single Republican vote in the House, and only three Republican votes in the Senate. On the surface, Obama’s strategy worked. The remaining banks and automotive companies survived and began repaying their government loans. The Recession was slowed before it could become a full-blown Depression. That said, many Americans perceived the TARP bailouts as a handout for corporations and wealthy executives. The reality for the lower class was worsening wealth inequality. This spurred a series of protests against big banks, known as the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In addition to the economic crisis, Obama inherited a failing War on Terror. Sticking to his campaign promise, he reduced the number of troops in Iraq from about 160,000 to 50,000 over the first year and a half of his presidency, including the removal of all combat troops. He followed President Bush’s post-surge plan to transfer authority to the new Iraqi government, allowing for the remaining troops to withdraw in 2011. In Afghanistan, Obama took the opposite approach. He increased the troop count by about 21,000, in an effort to prevent the Taliban from regaining power. Per the recommendation of his generals, he authorized a short-term surge of 33,000 more troops at the end of 2009, with the promise to withdraw by July 2011 and transfer power to a newly-trained Afghan military. One of the most significant moments of Obama’s presidency came on May 2, 2011, when Navy SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Despite the successful elimination of Al Qaeda’s leader, Obama controversially expanded the use of aerial drones to fight suspected terrorists in the Middle East.
Beyond solving the disasters of the Bush Administration, Obama’s main policy goal was health care reform, which had been part of the Democratic Party agenda since President Truman. While Johnson passed Medicare in 1965, both Carter and Clinton failed to make progress on the issue. Obama hoped to fulfill his campaign promise while Democrats controlled Congress. Unfortunately, although the party was united around the need for reform, they were divided on the how. Those on the left called for a government-run “public option,” while others simply wanted to expand private coverage to those who lacked it. Unlike the failed effort of President Clinton, the Obama Administration worked closely with Congress to write legislation. They also took into consideration the interests of the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, which previously used advertising and lobbying to defeat health care reform in the 1990s. Conservative critics argued that “Obamacare” would make existing coverage worse and would be too expensive for a country already dealing with a major recession. In turn, Obama insisted that any proposal had to be budget-neutral. In September 2009, he gave a televised address to Congress explaining the basics of his plan, but the most memorable moment of the speech came when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” to Obama’s claim that it would not insure illegal immigrants. After months of debate, both houses of Congress passed their own versions of health care legislation. The Affordable Care Act (the Senate’s version) was signed into law in March 2010.
Conservative opposition to Obama’s expensive policies resulted in the “Tea Party” movement. They called for lower taxes, reduced government spending, and decreased federal deficit. Republicans used this backlash as fuel for the 2010 midterms. They won back control of the House and immediately put the President on the defensive. Obama argued that he shared their long-term goal of deficit reduction, but that less federal spending would stifle the struggling economy. When budget negotiations stalled, the replacement plan was a bipartisan “super committee” of Congress members, whose purpose was to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion through taxes and/or spending cuts by 2012. If they failed, that same amount would automatically be deducted from the budget, split between both domestic programs and defense spending. In theory, both parties were invested in the committee’s success. Unfortunately, in the ultimate demonstration of partisanship, the super committee failed to reach an agreement.
Republicans found every possible way to complain about President Obama’s performance. In accordance with Tea Party demands, most of their attacks were focused on increased government spending and a newfound concern for the deficit (which conveniently seems to only occur under Democratic presidencies). They argued that, under Obama, the federal government had overstepped its role, most egregiously with the Affordable Care Act. The President faced a dangerously low approval rating of about 40%. To make matters worse, the economy was still struggling, with an unemployment rate still over 8%. Many Americans felt left behind.
Despite his low approval ratings, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did not face any serious primary challengers. This gave their campaign a head start on organizing and fundraising for the general election.
Republicans, on the other hand, had another large field of contenders. The frontrunners for the race were former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Representative Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Romney, who previously ran in 2008, first gained fame for organizing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. As a Republican governor in a traditionally liberal state, he was seen as a moderate within the party. The rest of the candidates often attacked him from the right. Paul, also returning from a 2008 run, represented the libertarian wing of the party. Santorum appealed to religious conservatives. Gingrich was best known for leading the “Republican Revolution” against President Clinton in the 1994 midterm elections. “Also-rans” in 2012 included Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, and businessman (and current Twitter ghost) Herman Cain.
Several candidates rose and fell throughout 2011, but ultimately, the race came down to the four best-known contenders. Santorum focused most of his campaign on Iowa. It paid off when he was declared the winner of the caucuses. Later, it was determined that Ron Paul actually won the most delegates, but the narrative had already been written. Since he used most of his resources in the first state, Santorum’s momentum didn’t transfer to New Hampshire. Mitt Romney easily won, benefitting from the closeness to his home-state. The third state, South Carolina, went to Newt Gingrich. Santorum made a strong comeback by winning three states in a row, but failed to expand his religious base. Romney dominated on Super Tuesday, finally clinching the nomination. He was the first Mormon candidate of a major party. He shared the ticket with running mate Paul Ryan, a representative from Wisconsin. As chair of the House Budget Committee, Ryan appealed to economic conservatives.
One major change in this election was the addition of Super PACs, or political action committees. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the government could not restrict campaign donations from corporations, unions, and nonprofit organizations. Although they are not officially tied to campaigns, Super PACs are allowed to overtly endorse candidates. Through Super PACs, massive amounts of money were spent by businesses and wealthy individuals on the election. In 2012, more than $2 billion was spent on behalf of both candidates.
The election cycle was dominated by negative campaigning. Over 80% of advertisements from both parties were considered negative. Romney stuck to typical Republican accusations that government interference in the economy was actually worsening the Recession. He also heavily criticized Obamacare, although he had created a similar state-level program as governor. Republicans seized an opportunity when Obama used a poor choice of words to defend raising taxes for public services. In reference to infrastructure and emergency services, he asserted, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The soundbite became a symbol of Obama’s perceived hatred of individual business owners. Romney had several gaffes of his own. In one speech, he claimed to be “severely conservative.” The clunkiness of the phrase highlighted his insincerity towards the right. In another, secretly recorded speech, Romney argued that 47% of voters weren’t worth appealing to because they were “dependent on the government.” To many voters, this proved that he would not fight for the poor.
The debates matched the fierce tone of the campaign. In the first, Obama appeared unprepared and caught off guard. Romney, on the other hand, effectively communicated his moderate message. Obama improved his performance in subsequent debates. Romney suffered from another gaffe when, in response to a question about pay equity, he claimed to have had “binders full of women” when staffing his cabinet in Massachusetts. The awkward line again made him appear disingenuous.
Political scientists believed the race would be close. News media focused on a handful of battleground states that had not been consistently red or blue in recent elections like Florida, ohio, and Iowa. In the final days of the campaign, Obama began to pick up steam. The unemployment rate finally dropped below 8%, a huge win for his economic policies. He also benefitted from his well-perceived response to Hurricane Sandy, a “super storm” that hit the Northeast in late October. Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie toured damaged areas with the president and publicly praised his leadership.
The map looked very similar to 2008. While Obama took most of the important battleground states, his performance was not as strong as it had been four years prior. He did best with the fastest-growing demographics: young people, single people, nonreligious people, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Republicans benefited the most from redistricting following the 2010 census. States that voted Democratic in 2008 lost six electors. Republicans also implemented several restrictions on voting rights, like voter ID laws, which disproportionately affected minority groups.
Barack Obama won a second term! The election was not as close as expected, but still closer than 2008. The electoral score was 332-206. Obama won 51% of the popular vote. Romney (ironically) won 47%. Obama was only the second president to win a second term with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than his first election, the other being Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (not counting Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 fourth-term victory). This was only the second instance of three two-term presidents in a row. Despite Obama’s victory, Republicans kept control of the House. Democrats were able to win back some seats in the Senate, even though they had more seats on the line than the Republicans.
What Did It Say About America?
Polarization was getting worse! Obama had a low national approval rating, but was beloved in his party. Congress was at a complete standstill, mostly thanks to a Republican Party that thrived on opposition. This resulted in a heavily negative campaign. Obama’s messaging was notably less policy-oriented than it had been four years prior. The divided Congress left him with a limited mandate. Anger on both sides, as seen in the growing protest movements, indicated that many voters still preferred “outsider” candidates. The Republican Party did not have an answer for that… yet. Romney simply couldn’t connect with their increasingly radical base. A subsequent Republican Party “autopsy” called for more inclusivity to answer demographic shifts in the country. They would not follow that advice.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! Obama needed more time to get stuff done. Unfortunately… blind Republican opposition would only get worse. This was a pretty fierce election. It’s (not?) funny to look back at how inoffensive and moderate Romney was as a candidate, compared to what was to come.