The secret of Barack Obama’s re-election is simply that for millions of Americans, he was just good enough. He had not fulfilled the promise of 2008, but he had passed a silent threshold.
His supporters weren’t particularly excited; they weren’t interested in turning out for rallies or putting up lawn signs. They had no idea what he hoped to do in the future. They just turned out to validate the choice they made in 2008, and he won.
Naturally, conservatives have focused on what Mitt Romney might have done differently. We have vented our frustrations over Obama’s negative campaign, even while admitting that there is much to learn from its data mining and get-out-the-vote operations.
But for those in the diminished majority that voted for him, all of that is extraneous. Obama met a standard, albeit a lowered one, and for millions of his voters, that is all he had to do.
It is true that the economy–Romney’s target throughout the campaign–is in a terrible state. Unemployment is up from the time Obama took office; economic growth is slow and may be heading towards recession. But enough people believe they are getting by. At the higher end, the stock market has recovered, thanks to the interventions of the Fed. At the lower end, millions are buoyed by unemployment benefits and food stamps.
Blacks and Hispanics in particular believe the country is headed in the right direction. Black voters appear to feel that way despite soaring black unemployment. By contrast, the real explanation for Obama’s strong showing among Hispanic voters may have less to do with Republican immigration policy and more to do with the fact that two-thirds of the jobs created during Obama’s presidency have gone to immigrants, legal and illegal.
In foreign policy, Obama has behaved as if he can do no wrong, having presided over the successful raid on Osama bin Laden. And he may be right. The Benghazi attack on 9/11, and the fiasco that followed as the Obama administration attempted to blame an obscure video for the violence, did little damage. The decline of American power and prestige was seen as inevitable, or–like so much else–a legacy of the Bush years.
Obama treated our allies poorly–especially Israel. And few pro-Israel voters believed the hype from Democrats about Obama being the best friend Israel had ever had in the White House. But he did the bare minimum–blocking a Palestinian statehood resolution in the UN Security Council, continuing security cooperation with the Israel Defense Force–to convince enough Jewish voters and donors that he had done just enough.
Obama did no better than Bush in handling natural disasters. He delayed visiting the victims of Hurricane Isaac in September because he was busy campaigning. And he merely posed for a 90-minute photo-op with the victims of Hurricane Sandy, many of whom are still without power, two weeks later. But he was seen to care–was shown to care by a media that savaged his predecessor for doing his best in Hurricane Katrina.
Even unpopular Obamacare was good enough–the Supreme Court seemed to say so. Voters were never convinced of the constitutional dangers of Obama’s excesses. And Republicans chose a nominee who, because of his record, struggled to make the case.
The future costs of the Obama presidency, economic and political, remained abstract and distant. And he was just good enough, for enough people, to win a second chance.