What a long and nasty campaign that was. It is hard to imagine that a political race of such magnitude could be so intellectually and emotionally bunged-up. But it’s over, and we can now ask ourselves what the point was of President Obama clubbing his way to another four years of access to the White House gym. What now? Because even after so many months of campaigning, it’s not entirely clear.
Certainly not the way it was in 2008, when voters swooned over his promise of hope and change. Then, Obama promised light after the darkness of the Bush-Cheney years. He would bring peace and harmony, end wars and reconcile the partisans of Washington. This time, his promises were more grounded: competence, experience and more of his statist approach to managing the economy.
His victory now all but guarantees the implementation of his healthcare reforms. There has been all kinds of hooting and hollering about this by Republicans and claims that it’s a giant state takeover of healthcare.
But the former Republican secretary of state Colin Powell was right when he endorsed Obama for re-election, saying that the details of the plan can be fixed. However, its headline achievement, of providing health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans, is undoubtedly worthwhile. It was a problem that the private market for health insurance has stubbornly failed to fix.
Wall Street turned nastily on Obama, their 2008 crush, during this campaign. If you spent too much time in the company of bankers, you’d think he was some vicious communist, as hellbent on soaking the rich as François Hollande.
But by European standards, Obama’s tax proposals are more a concealed-banana heist than a violent hold-up. He would like to see the rich pay at least 30 per cent of their income, including income from dividends and capital gains, in federal taxes. It’s more than they’ve become used to over the past 12 years, and more than Mitt Romney wanted, but still far from punitive. For everyone else, not much changes. The nightmare for Obama is that everything he fed the US economy between 2008 and 2012 will be thrown back in his face. Government debts continue to swell, the economy continues to sputter, unemployment fails to come down, houses languish in foreclosure, and we are back to where we were in 2008, but now with the national credit card tapped out. It’s a queasy, but real prospect.
We’ll have a better idea of where everyone stands on this in the coming weeks, as the President and Congress thrash out their response to ‘Taxmageddon’, the gruesome coincidence of expiring Bush-era tax cuts and fresh cuts to government spending, all due to come into effect at the start of next year.
On the international stage, Obama will soon have to learn to manage without his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who will resign after the inauguration in January, perhaps to reboot for one more run at the presidency in 2016.
Mrs Clinton has proved a remarkably efficient diplomat, willing to talk to anyone and blanketing the fires which raged under George W. Bush. Obama has pursued a safety-first foreign policy, and it does seem to have leached the poison from America’s global reputation. So expect more of the same.
In 2008, Obama promised to address the ‘fierce urgency of now’. In office, however, he has shown more placidity than ferocity. He doesn’t crash into the geo-political furniture or grope his interns. His administration has been remarkably free of scandal. That often changes for presidents serving their second terms.
Perhaps the greatest shock of his second term will be the hardening realisation that Obama’s reality is not his rhetoric. He is a very mainstream, and not uncommonly partisan Democratic haggler, who will become more so the longer he stays in office.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012