All appeared to be going according to plan for Barack Obama until the first presidential debate. Mitt Romney was able to move to a seemingly more moderate position without renouncing his basic stance. He managed to do this because President Obama’s strategy was to look presidential, not to attack, and thus not to bring out the contradictions. It was only the next day, before a big public rally, that he made the point, saying that “the man on stage last night, he does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions and what he’s been saying for the last year.”

What Romney had been saying for the last year – and what the Republicans have been saying for much longer – is rather straightforward. It is a simple trickle-down principle: cut taxes and regulations on the rich “job creators” and everyone will benefit. Somehow, they combine this with major increases in defence spending and still come out with a reduction of the huge debt. Obama failed to attack this position effectively because Romney bobbed and weaved and Obama was reluctant to punch. While he recovered in the last two debates, he could not undo all the damage. In many ways his failure in the first debate reflected a deeper flaw in the Obama campaign.

The kind of punch needed would have been there had Obama been running a campaign that differentiated him from the Republicans, in effect rebuilding the electoral support base that brought him victory in 2008. Obama’s national campaign of 2008, led by his closest advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe, succeeded in energizing a large segment first of the Democratic Party and then of the electorate behind his slogan: Change, Yes We Can. When he first sought the nomination as an outsider in 2007, Barack Obama was an extraordinary phenomenon, an African American former community organizer and law professor, author of two bestselling books. He was clearly not your typical Washington insider, despite having served for two years as junior senator from Illinois.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought a disastrous end to George W. Bush’s presidency, the country was ready for change and the 2008 Republican ticket proved to be no real challenge. Indeed some pundits argued persuasively that had Obama looked Caucasian like his mother rather than black like his father, he would have won by a landslide. Not only did Obama win a solid majority of Electoral College votes, but his coattails carried Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

The real campaign had been played out in the Democratic primaries, between Obama and Hillary Clinton. The confrontation between the senators from New York and Illinois energized the Democratic Party base (blacks and Latinos, women, first-time voters, students), to a level of enthusiasm and energy that had not been experienced since a previous senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, entered the Democratic primaries in 1968.

Much has happened since Barack Obama was elected four years ago. Therefore, it’s worth looking again at the energized base of 2008 and asking whether Obama’s 2012 campaign could have recreated the conditions that brought him his first victory.

Of course the conditions are not the same. Not only did the Barack Obama of 2012 have a track record to defend, but the support level of 2008 does not in itself translate into as many electoral college votes and congressional seats, since, in the interval, several Republican-controlled state legislatures have gerrymandered congressional districts, brought in photo ID laws, shortened voting hours and taken other measures to make it harder for members of visible minorities and young people to vote. The New York Times warned two days before the election of Republican efforts “to intimidate voters at polling places, to demand photo ID where none is required … The good news is that … courts have either rejected or postponed many of the worst laws. But a great deal of damage has already been done.”

Objectively speaking, Obama’s track record – facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression of the 1930s and, since 2010, an obstructive Republican House of Representatives – is a respectable one: stimulating the economy, bailing out GM and Chrysler, stabilizing the financial sector, fostering the technological postindustrial revolution, achieving the first health care reform since 1965, exiting from Iraq and soon from Afghanistan, recognizing same-sex marriages, legalizing 800,000 illegal Hispanic immigrants, supporting the Arab Spring and redirecting America’s foreign policy toward China. But subjectively, the hope that he infused into the American polity in 2007 and 2008 is not there, smothered under lost jobs and homes.

Could it have been different? In our view, Obama’s strategists needed to attack Romney by emphasizing in stark, human terms the clear choice between Keynesian social liberalism and Ayn Rand–inspired free market liberalism, between preserving the social insurance system and gutting it. While some of his ads made this point, Obama himself seldom did. A victory like that of 2008 would have featured an Obama presenting his vision for the country in a concrete but evocative discourse, drawing a sweeping contrast with his opponents, recapturing some of the idealism that was deflected away from electoral politics by the Occupy Wall Street movement. The groundwork for the problem lay in his choices in his four years in office, his failure to rise to the level of an FDR, who was able, as the Depression persisted, to remain a figure of hope and progress.

The victorious coalition of 2008

When Barack Obama entered the Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination in 2007, he lacked name recognition and his voter base was very small and localized in Illinois. He entered the race a distant third, well behind Hillary Clinton, who was highly visible, heavily supported by the establishment of the Democratic Party and the iconic candidate of 60 per cent of women voters. Practically all observers had declared her certain to emerge as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. Obama, many observers believed, was in it to widen his political base for the future and strengthen his position in the Senate. But early on in the race, this African American voice for change showed signs of energizing sections of the electorate that had been dormant since 1968.

Who were these new energized voters? One group consisted of “Independents,” whose numbers had been increasing over the past 30 years, especially in presidential elections. According to CNN exit polls in the 2004 presidential elections, they represented 26 per cent of the electorate, which rose to 29 per cent in 2008, when 58 per cent of them voted for Obama.1 But building a strategy on independents is building on sand: independent voters have little in common with one another, aside from being predominantly white and somewhat better educated. And they are not necessarily the same people from one election to the next.

Other groups were more cohesive. Not surprisingly Obama was able to consolidate the already strongly Democratic African American vote, as well as a solid majority of Latino and women voters. The real breakthrough came with college students. No Democratic candidate since 1968, not even Bill Clinton, had been able to do as much until the emergence of Barack Obama. In the interval, to the extent that it has been politically active, the college electorate mobilized around the environment, international human rights, Tibet, opposing the war in Iraq and issues related to gender and minorities. In 2004, young voters did not turn out sufficiently to make a difference, allowing George W. Bush to win and pursue the war in Iraq.

During the 2008 primaries, Obama’s campus support allowed him to win the caucus states, where people have to participate in a discussion before casting a vote so that individual mobilizing effort counts for more than in the primary states. Success was due to his message of change but also to the medium by which the message was conveyed: a brilliant Internet strategy devised by David Plouffe. To judge by what they were reading, the more sophisticated progressive voters were skeptical of Obama’s message, but at some level could not help being swept along.2

The challenge of 2012

Aside from the effects of the Iraq war in 2006, George W. Bush’s appeal to the religious right had begun to push young voters into the Democratic camp in 2002 and 2004. Sarah Palin had the same effect in 2008, when, according to Pew Research, 66 per cent of under-30s voted for Obama (compared to 31 per cent for John McCain), with young women and young blacks even higher.3 The situation in 2012, however, was quite different in this constituency, with the Democrats’ advantage among millennial voters declining from 32 points in 2008 to 19. To see why, we need just look at figure 1.

The impressive increase in voter turnout in the 2008 election, 5 million more than in 2004, reflected its being the most ethnically diversified election in American history. This was due primarily to a boost in African American voter participation rate of 5.1 per cent to a level of 67.5 per cent, equal with that of whites. For Hispanic voters over 30, turnout also rose, by 2.4 per cent over 2004 to 49.9 per cent.4

In August 2012, before the conventions, the Pew Research Center released its detailed survey of party identification among registered voters, similar to the one it had carried out four years earlier. While the Democrats still maintained a lead of 5 per cent, it had declined from 12 per cent in 2008. In 2008, the Democrats had led among white women and white voters under 30; now this was no longer the case. White women, who leaned Democratic 49 to 42 per cent in 2008, were slightly more pro-GOP at 47 to 44 per cent in August 2012. Meanwhile, the parties were even among under-30 white voters, compared to a seven-point edge for the Democrats in 2008. However, once we include African Americans and Latinos everything changes: 55 per cent of millennials identify with or lean to the Democrats, compared with 36 per cent for the Republicans.

Table 1, showing those voting for or leaning toward the two candidates, is quite revealing. Apart from blacks and Latinos, only low-income voters support Obama.

In office, Obama sought compromises with Republican congressional leaders and appealed to the few remaining moderate Republicans to get support for policies dealing with the economic crisis. Even after it became obvious that this was not possible, his language did not change. There was no real effort to go over the heads of Congress to address the American people directly, to make clear the differences between the two visions and their implications for working- and middle-class Americans.

This strategy carried into his speech in the convention and was evident in the first debate: to act presidential and not risk antagonizing independent voters. As noted, the strategy backfired. What was missing was a rallying call in the name of the 47 per cent dismissed by Romney, an appeal to solidarity to create the necessary consensus underlying any mandate he may have received, a reminder of the Obama of 2008.

The constituencies that Obama relied on to win in 2008 know that the first four years have not been an easy ride. The financial and economic crisis, the worst to hit the United States since the Great Depression, took the wind out of the sails of the winning slogan “Change, Yes We Can.” Then came the Tea Party takeover of the House in 2010, which effectively put an end to meaningful reform. Understandably, especially among white independents who voted for him, there was disappointment directed at him for failing to sufficiently protect their homes, their jobs and the education fees of their children. Missing in Obama’s discourse was language to evoke the far worse conditions that would have befallen them had his Republican adversaries been able to enact their agenda.

While for many African Americans and Hispanics Obama did not fulfill his inspirational dream, neither group has deserted him. Hispanics disappointed that Obama did not push forward a long overdue policy on illegal Hispanic immigration were pleased when finally, in the summer of 2012, he legalized 800,000 illegal young Hispanics by presidential order. The question was whether they could be mobilized to turn out in comparable numbers, in the context of Republican efforts to make such mobilization more difficult.

Similarly, Obama’s policy on the accessibility – especially for lower-income women – of contraception through hospitals via a provision of Obamacare seems to have reenergized some women voters in his favour. This was strengthened when the Supreme Court unexpectedly ratified Obamacare as constitutional. In addition, Obama’s change of position on same-sex marriage consolidated the support of gays and lesbians, a community that is very active politically and appears to have given substantial monetary support to the Democratic Party. Still, entering the final electoral sprint in September, there remained a significant gap from 2008 levels among groups targeted by the party.

Among many Democratic partisans, discomfort with Obama’s concessions to the Republicans, especially on universal health care, persisted. Many believed that Obama had been listening to the Clinton forces within his cabinet (Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and Peter Orszag) and outside talking heads such as James Carville and Bill Clinton himself, rather than being sensitive to the needs and concerns of those who brought him to the dance. In 2008 they turned out to vote and to get others to do so. This is how Obama won, and also how the religious right reelected Bush in 2004.

Until the first debate, an advertising campaign warning of what Obama’s opponents threatened to do seemed to suffice in stemming erosion of support among the groups that had supported Obama in 2008. The Republicans’ primary campaign pushed its eventual winner, Mitt Romney, well to the right on both economic and social issues, and his selection of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate confirmed his stance. Moreover, Republican candidates continued to shoot themselves in the foot with anti-women and anti-immigrant pronouncements, as well as state regulations such as an Arizona law on racial profiling of suspected illegal aliens.

This, alongside Romney’s gaffes on foreign policy issues, provided the Obama campaign with ammunition and helped it raise money to repel the attacks of the right-wing Super-PACs. Before he was saved in the first debate, Romney was facing mounting criticism: according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, he had no strategy and was all over the map, and doubts were raised among leading conservatives such as Karl Rove, Kevin Phillips and George Will.

Occupy Wall Street one year later

Obama and Biden’s narrow win by makes it hard for them to claim a mandate from the American people to take decisive action that would reduce the power and privileges of the very wealthy in order to preserve the social safety net. It is this dimension that the Occupy Wall Street movement brought into public debate: the unacceptably large and growing income inequality and lack of mobility in the contemporary United States. On occasion, Obama showed that he had heard the message. His speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011 took a combative and populist tone, and for the first time he explicitly accused the Republicans of wanting to apply social Darwinism in defending the 1 per cent against the 99. Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner as well as Romney, accused Obama of instigating class warfare. In May 2012 Obama reiterated his position that he would apply strict regulatory measures on Wall Street during his second mandate, prompting a selloff and a drop of 200 points in the Dow.

But judging by his convention speech, compared even to parts of Bill Clinton’s speech at the same convention, these were the exceptions. Obama was reluctant to draw such clear distinctions, as was evident in the first debate. This is not to suggest that the Democratic Party should have been out trying to convince OWS activists to knock on doors for their candidates. While the OWS movement appealed to graduates unable to find jobs as well as students whose prospects were dim, its most vocal partisans tended to be left-wing activists frustrated by domestic and foreign policies that failed to challenge the dominant elite. Hence, when the occupations subsided, some initiated grassroots social movements, notably the almost successful effort to recall anti-union Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.5

While generally refusing to take part in partisan electoral politics, some from OWS were involved in registration drives and efforts to combat measures to limit poor people’s right to vote. Yet, though given the opportunity, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign were unwilling or unable to channel OWS’s energy and message sufficiently for it to serve as a kind of signpost of the desire for change in 2012.

Now what?

The election has left the United States with a split Congress and a president who cannot claim any sort of clear mandate, not simply because of his meagre margin of victory but also because of the campaign he ran. Could it have been otherwise? We believe it could have if he had carried a different discourse into the first debate. This discourse would have stressed reduction of inequality and restoration of social mobility. Instead of just criticizing Republicans for policies that had brought on the economic crisis, he needed to stress how their policies past and future were such as to widen the gap between rich and everyone else and place even more hurdles in front of those seeking to improve their lot. In other words, a passionate defence of the 47 per cent, or indeed the 99 per cent.

Under such circumstances even a narrow victory would have served Obama better as a basis for seeking from the American people a mandate to address the real issues in his final term. It could be argued that this strategy would have raised the risk of losing the presidency, and with it Obamacare and – after one or more Supreme Court appointments – the right to abortion. On this view, Mitt Romney could have ended up in the White House, which would have meant rewarding bad behaviour and placing irresponsible Republicans in charge of the day-to-day decisions of the world’s leading power – a thought that sends shivers up the spines of concerned observers of the United States in Canada and elsewhere.

But a Romney victory was not really in the cards. Indeed, it was only in the brief period after the first debate that a Romney presidency was a possibility. A different Obama that night would have avoided it. Instead of pitching toward uncertain middle, independent voters who really aren’t so, Obama could have targeted his natural constituency from the beginning, and not just left it to his “ground game” to bring out his passive supporters at the last minute. We know from a Pew study of nonvoters that in 2008 they constituted about 43 per cent of the voting-age population, and that in 2012 they favored Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a wide margin (59 to 24 per cent).

Mr. Obama cannot run for reelection. Let us hope that – in words even if not so much in deeds – the inspiring Barack Obama of 2008 once more appears on the stage.


1 See Michael Tomasky, “Swingtime for Obama,” New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012, pp. 9–13.

2 Mother Jones, The Nation and The Progressive are among the magazines that are most popular among those who define themselves as being on the left or progressives, outside of the Democratic Party.

3 Pew Research Center, 2008 election: “How They Voted”; exit polls conducted by NBC News: U.S. Census Bureau Reports, July 20, 2009.

4 Pew Research Center Publications, “Dissecting the 2008 Electorate,” April 30, 2009.

5 See the September 2012 issue of Labor Notes for a complete analysis of this struggle (

Photograph by Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America