The night after the election, I ran into a friend and neighbor at a youth soccer banquet. Naturally the subject of President Obama’s re-election came up.
In 2008, my friend said, he’d been over the moon when Obama beat John McCain. He’d walked around for several days in a state of stunned elation, almost in disbelief that the country that elected G.W. Bush twice would go for Obama.
“This time it’s different,” he said, his eyes betraying a fatigue that seemed not merely caused by the exertion he’d been putting into his work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, into raising a family and contributing to his community.
“This time, I just feel a sense of relief,” he said with a wan smile.
In 2008, Obama made history, swept into office in a year that saw high voter interest and record voter turnout. This time around, the energy in the electorate had obviously changed. In the end, more than 40 percent of registered voters stayed home last Tuesday—math that shows a fair degree of apathy for both candidates.
Yet to my friend’s great relief, the general malaise, together with dissatisfaction with Obama on many specific points, failed to induce a wild over-correction by the electorate.
Obama prevailed despite his bobbled first debate against Mitt Romney and the subsequent disinformation campaign by Karl Rove and other GOP operatives in and around the media industry to make the election appear closer than it probably ever was. The president won despite continued economic anxiety among a majority of voters and lingering (maybe mounting) anger from within his own core constituency on a variety of fronts: military, national security, human rights.
And he won despite having been relentlessly attacked for the last four years by a Republican party shaped by win-at-all-cost zealots like Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor—a party that, even in the midst of a great economic crisis, refused ever to offer a hand of cooperation or conciliation.
The sense of relief my friend feels, I think, is a natural and predictable extension of the elation that he—that many of us—felt on Election Day in 2008. Then, many of us were thrilled by an outcome that, once and for all, exceeded our justifiably low expectations. Having watched George Bush, with the help of the Supreme Court, win or steal two narrow victories, it was hard to envision—to let ourselves believe—that voters would choose an alternative path.
But since then, what have we seen? We’ve seen how quickly Obama’s honeymoon came to an end, watched the nation’s unjustifiably influential pundits continually try to hold Obama to the unreasonable expectation that he quickly restore the economy to pre-Bush era levels and resolve longstanding problems that have been left routinely unattended by both parties. In a political atmosphere inflamed by the Tea Party and clouded by the Occupy Wall Street movement, any reasonable person was right to fear the possibility of an impulsive return to the neo-conservative doctrine still on offer from the GOP.
There are many legitimate criticisms to be leveled at Obama and his party, but it is entirely ahistorical and unfair to characterize him as a destabilizing or radical force. In fact, to the degree that he’s infuriated nearly as many liberals (for not spending trillions more on economic stimulus) as he has born-again anti-deficit conservatives, Obama has been willing to disappoint everybody in exchange for the opportunity to do what may economists thought unlikely if not impossible in 2008: to manage a soft landing for an economy that was spiraling out of control.
Last week, Obama accepted his reward from voters who, despite reasonable anxiety about the future, showed themselves to be a lot more sensible than many politicians and pundits expected. While it lacks the fanfare of 2008, the outcome of 2012 says something important about American voters after so many years of dissatisfaction and hardship. It appears we are a sadder but wiser country today, with lower but more reasonable expectations for those we elect, more careful in the promises we accept. That’s not a bad thing at all.•