POSTED ON NOVEMBER 21, 2012:
Where Are We Going?
Obama's squeaker victory lacks popular mandate
The celebration and grieving for both the Democrats and Republicans have begun to subside. However, the Monday morning quarterbacking continues as political pundits drone on about lessons learned. Some will observe that after months of political battling, we look to be pretty much right where we were before it started. That is, a very deeply divided country and government. If America was a pie, most of the crust looks blue and most of the pie looks red. Clearly there was no victory mandate or crushing defeat.
If you believe the early vote count information (even though some states are still counting) about 120 million Americans voted. The gross difference of votes received between Obama and Romney using this number is roughly 3.6 million. This means that if 1.8 million of the total number that voted had picked Romney instead of Obama, it's a statistical tie in the popular vote. That small change in the number of switched votes is about 1.5% of the total.
It's the popular vote, not the Electoral College, that paints a picture of how divided America is. Regardless of who would have won the election, over 60 million citizens would not have picked the winner. How much joy in winning is there when, as the president, you look out across the country and see that almost half the voters don't want you? When you win by the skin of your teeth, it is hardly a vote of confidence.
The messages from both campaigns could be seen as true. One side said we're heading in the right direction and let's not quit now. The other side said Washington has failed us and we need a new beginning. Prior to voting, in almost every poll taken, a majority said that America was not heading in the right direction. Yet many of those people chose to stick with a president taking us in that wrong direction. Go figure.
Perhaps what will define President Obama's second term most of all is what lessons he takes from the narrowness of his victory and what lessons Republicans draw from defeat. Recent history tells us that second terms are not always kind or what a president really wants to be remembered for.
Recently Doyle McManus, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times said: "There is plenty that goes wrong in second terms. The soaring ideas and idealism that brought a president victory the first time yield to narrower, more experienced calculations of what he can achieve in practice the second time around. The aides who helped him succeed move on to other jobs and their successors in the second term often look like the B-team. A second term president is a lame duck from election day on. If Congress didn't fear him much before, it will soon fear him even less."
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Sometimes second terms can be when the disasters on presidents occur. Nixon had Watergate, Clinton had Monica, Reagan had Iran Contra, and Bush had the economic collapse.
Some past presidents had, by their overwhelming popular and Electoral College results, clear mandates. And those in Congress knew this. Reagan used this masterfully. When he couldn't get Congress to move on his policies, he went straight to the American people and the airways. He knew that the voters that put him in the White House were the same voters who sent men and women to Congress. Americans may have liked their Congressman, but they wanted Reagan to run the country.
Obama doesn't have that. In 2008 he won 28 states and 53% of the popular vote. This year he likely won 26 states and a near tie in the popular vote. And with so much vote counting still going on and with the margin of difference so close, Romney could win the popular vote.
We are taught from our earliest age that in any kind of public, private, sporting, academic, or business venture, the one who comes out on top with the best grade or best score or best time or best results is actually the winner. Only in American elections can a person who gets the most votes actually turn out to be the loser. Try explaining that to your children.
The strategy used in this election was one of dividing the country. You had large groups who thought the purpose of the election was to thank Obama for what he had done for them in the past. Their vote was kind of a thank you gift. Then you had those who said it's not about the past, it's about the future. And Obama doesn't have enough of a past record of success to put our future into his hands. Some were voting backward and some were voting forward.
As Americans, we're a funny lot when it comes to picking presidents. We like glamour stars like Kennedy or movie stars like Reagan or rising stars like Clinton. But we don't like old guys or rich guys, at least not for very long. On the one hand we want someone whom we believe can relate to us because he's like us, but on the other hand we want the novelty president, one we've never had before.
No reasonable person can look at this election and say that there is an overwhelming reaffirmation on what Obama has stood for or done. Nor can it be concluded that the fiscal or social conflicts dividing Americans are either defeated or should be over. Don't count on either of those being the case because, as Americans, we don't like either defeat or surrender on things that matter most to us.
Perhaps the path to a better-run national government is for the federal government to quit trying to do so much with so little for so many. The more the federal government tries to do, the more disagreement and division there will be. We should return to the core functions that the national government, and only the national government, should do: defense, foreign affairs, international trade, monetary policy, and other responsibilities contained in the U.S. Constitution. Let the states be the laboratories of American democracy, ingenuity, and social problem-solving, with solutions coming from the American people at home, not in Washington.
The answers aren't there -- they're here.
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