In his historic victory speech in 2008, the-then senator Barack Obama began with these ringing words: “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.” He went on to say that “even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century … Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers – in this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people … This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace …”
Four years later, it is clear that Obama’s vision didn’t exactly pan out. The worst financial crisis in a century is untamed: unemployment still hovers around 8%. The planet remains in a perilous state. The middle class continues to shrink while the wealthy 1% separates itself even more from the remaining 99%. Schools and colleges have drastically cut classes and services. The path to peace is more elusive than ever.
Conditions rarely seemed more favourable for the Republican Party to seize control of the White House. The historical significance of an African-American president had worn off in four years. With his frustratingly cautious style and lack of big and bold ideas, President Obama created a vacuum that the Republicans were determined to fill.
Yet the Americans handed the Republicans a decisive defeat and rewarded Obama with a second-term presidency.
Cynics may say that the 2012 presidential election was more a case of rejecting Romney than of embracing Obama but that would be wrong. Ordinary citizens, especially the young, the minorities (Hispanics, in particular) and women, made a conscious choice. In effect, they told the president: “Although we were disappointed with your first-term performance, we still trust you to do the right thing, more than we trust anyone from the Republican Party. We know that we invested impossible hopes on you. We know that you inherited a terrible mess. Still, you could have done better. But we also believe that you are honest and compassionate, that you deserve more time, and that under your leadership, many more Americans will thrive than under a Republican president.”
This is what makes Obama’s winning a second term more impressive than his first win. He was no longer the superhuman he appeared to be when he ran for president four years ago. Political reality and partisan gridlock had brought him down to earth. He was vulnerable (never more so than after his disastrous performance in the first debate with Mitt Romney), his failings (detached, reliance on rhetoric rather than action, inability to deliver on promises) exposed under the harsh glare of objective analysis. There was no history to be made any longer, no grand and sweeping vision that voters could look up to. This time around he was a mere mortal who could only offer more hope, change and empathy but who also had to acknowledge in his speech at the Democratic national convention that “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.”
Yet the Americans chose to go with this fallible black man than with a “big business” white CEO who claimed to have a solution to every problem the nation was facing but who could not provide any specifics.
What the second Obama victory also laid bare is the moral bankruptcy of the current Republican Party. A significant percentage of the Republicans, including Tea Partiers, simply cannot accept the notion of a non-white residing in the White House. For them, it is a sacrilege. They also believe in class division and higher education for rich kids only. When it comes to global warming, why, that’s but a hoax perpetrated by goofy nature lovers and climate scientists working off the wrong set of data. These ideological extremists refuse to acknowledge America’s shifting demographics. They demean women every chance they get. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri “explained” why pregnancy due to rape was rare because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” (Justice was swiftly delivered. Akin was on track to win before he made that statement but eventually lost. So did Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, another “expert” on rape and the female body.)
Obama must be a different president from what he was the last four years. While he has said that he will reach out to the Republicans to avoid falling off the looming financial cliff, he must also not be too eager to compromise. One of the valid complaints against his first term was that he was too willing to appease his critics at the expense of his support base. In fact, that was the major source of discontent against him by his supporters.
The reality is that the country is split right down the middle and, given the intransigence of the Republicans, the political paralysis of the last four years is likely to become worse. As president, he should extend an olive branch to his opponents but he must also hold firm to his values and principles. He cannot compromise, and certainly never surrender, on universal healthcare, shared tax burden, quality education for all, immigration reform, infrastructure investment, clean energy and the reversal of catastrophic climate changes. He cannot allow turning American democracy into an oligarchy. As he must have learned in his first term, appeasement leads not to unity but to greater national fracture. The prudent president must learn to become more pugnacious. If one half of the country refuses to go along, he must focus his effort on leading the other half to a better future. Only then, perhaps, will the GOP wake up to its duties and responsibilities.
President Obama is now free from the constraints of partisan politics and re-election. He can concentrate on delivering on his promises, at home and abroad (statehood for Palestinians, for instance). If “great things are done when men and mountains meet,” he can look forward to meeting the mountains that await him with confidence and conquering them. As he stated in his more subdued but still inspiring 2012 victory speech: “Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”
Mr. President, this time we expect you to deliver on the promises you made four years ago and repeated this week. Don’t disappoint us. We are counting on you.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is an educator and a technologist working in Silicon Valley. His specializes in advancing education through technology.