In the words of the old spiritual, "My Lord, what a morning!" Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was defined by an iconic poster bearing the single word: "Change." Obama's victory in 2008 signified how much America had already changed enough to make his historic campaign and audacious victory possible.
Four years later, President Obama's re-election adopted another one-word theme: "Forward." Obama's successful bid for reelection, along with significant victories for Democrats, and historic outcomes on some high-profile ballot initiatives suggest that the country has changed even more in the past four years — in ways that could give Democrats a long-term advantage over Republicans on social issues and economic issues.
Following an election that was often described as a choice between two different visions of America that would determine what kind of country we will become. We may not be "there" yet, but these changes show that we are a nation in progress.
For the first time in recent memory, social issues were a liability for Republicans and an asset for Democrats on at least two issues.
The biggest news after Obama's reelection is probably the LGBT community's historic victories on marriage last night. For the first time, in every state where the issue of marriage equality was on the ballot, anti-equality conservatives lost and equality advocates won in a four-state sweep.
- Maine made history when voters approved a measure to legalize same-sex marriage — reversing a 2009 vote that defeated marriage equality. Before Tuesday, no other state had approved marriage equality by popular vote, rather than through court rulings or legislation.
- Possibly tying with Maine, Maryland voters approved a ballot measure approving same-sex marriage. Anti-equality activists pushed the measure to a referendum after both houses of the state legislature approved it and the governor signed it.
- In Minnesota, voters rejected a constitutional amendment to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.
- If the trend continues, Washington state voters are on track to approve a law recognizing same-sex marriage, which passed earlier this years.
It's an amazing turnaround, considering that just four years ago the celebration of Obama victory was — for his LGBT supporters — overshadowed by the passage of California's Proposition 8, which reversed a court ruling in favor of marriage equality. The defeat, one in a streak of 32 losses, was made even more bitter by then president-elect Obama's "evolving" (but non-supportive) position on marriage equality. "Yes, we can," became "No, we can't." A year later, Maine followed California's lead.
Four years later, Proposition 8 has been ruled unconstitutional, Maine reversed it's 2009 vote, two states became the first to approve marriage equality by popular vote, and a fourth is likely to join that number. What happened?
Earlier this year, President Obama made history and completed his "evolution by declaring his support for marriage equality. Democrats followed Obama's leadership, adding support for marriage equality to the party platform. Obama's evolution was made possible by the work of marriage equality activists carried the rest of the country forward.
Yesterday, the President of the United States voiced his support for equal rights and protections for my family. That's a civil rights milestone the likes of which we haven't seen since the LBJ. From "We the people," to "Yes, we can," what has made America truly exceptional are the progressive movements that worked to ensure that more and more of us are included in that "we."
Maybe the president didn't really "evolve" at all. Maybe all that changed is that making his personal convictions public is less of a political risk than it was.
Again, I don't care. The important thing that we evolved — those of us who made commitments to each other, and set about creating our families without waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. We have evolved, and have brought the rest of the world with us. Now, that includes Barack Obama.
We evolved, and the country is evolving with us. If it's politically safer to support marriage equality now, because public support for marriage equality has increased rapidly in a just a few years, it's because we made that happen. We evolved and have brought the country with us, one commitment ceremony or PTA meeting at a time.
The margins of victory in the ballot measures roughly reflect the percentage of Americans who support same-sex marriage. Thus, in 2012, supporting marriage equality doesn't seem to have hurt Obama and the Democrats. In fact, it probably helped put LGBT Americans more solidly in the Democrats winning coalition.
It wasn't just marriage. An Iowa judge targeted for ruling in favor of marriage equality kept his seat. Colorado's House and Senate will see its first openly gay leaders sworn into office. And of course, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin made history by becoming the first openly gay U.S. Senator, and her vacated House seat was won by openly gay Democrat.
When the Republican primary turned into a debate about contraception, Republican presidential wannabes fell over each other to position themselves against it. It only got worse.
Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke and all other women who use birth control "sluts." Rick Santorum's financial backer, Foster Friess suggested women who wanted contraception place aspirin between their legs, "so they won't open them." National Review columnist Kevin D. Williamson published a bizarre screed reducing women to a set of biological and reproductive drives that made Mitt Romney their ideal candidate.
It got even worse.
Five Republican senate candidates stirred up even more controversy with inflammatory comments about abortion and rape.
- Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin got the ball rolling when he asserted that rape survivor didn't need access to abortion, because pregnancy rarely results from "legitimate rape," because a woman's body "has ways of shutting that whole thing down." In an attempt to clarify his remarks, Akin defended his use of "legitimate rape" because some women make false claims of being raped.
- Richard Mourdock, the GOP's candidate for Indiana's senate seat, said rape survivors shouldn't have access to legal abortion because their pregnancies are "a gift from God." The same week Mourdock made his comments, Mitt Romney aired an ad endorsing his candidacy.
- Connecticut Republican Linda McMahon revealed her belief that Catholic hospitals should be able to deny women emergency rape contraception, due to "separation of church and state."
- Pennsylvania senate candidate Tom Smith put a personal spin on the issue, explaining his support for denying women emergency rape contraception by saying he could "personally relate" because his daughter had a child out of wedlock, and saying that it had a "similar effect" on him as a father as a pregnancy that resulted from rape would.
- Washington state's John Koster kept it simple, saying that he opposed abortion access for rape survivors because it would only serve to "put more violence on a woman’s body."
In his New York Times column, "Values, Not Demographics, Won The Election," Joel Benenso dismisses an idea I'll get to a bit later: that an increasingly diverse America fueled President Obama's reelection victory. Instead, Benenso says Obama's success was due to an economic message that spoke to most Americans.
The president’s victory was a triumph of vision, not of demographics. He won because he articulated a set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in: A nation that makes the investments we need to strengthen and grow the middle class. A nation with a fair tax system, and affordable and excellent education for all its citizens. A nation that believes that we’re most prosperous when we recognize that we are all in it together.
…Moreover, Mr. Obama’s strength on the economy was not about “empathy,” as many experts asserted. Rather, for average working-class and middle-class Americans who have believed for nearly a decade that the economic system in America had fallen out of balance for people like them, the president’s personal story and policies engendered trust because they connected with voters’ lives, aspirations, and beliefs about what it would take to create the future they wanted. That trust was the central economic test in this election.
That is why, despite the credit given to Mr. Romney for “understanding” the economy — a phrasing that spoke to a technical understanding — Mr. Obama was always significantly more trusted on qualities that matter to working Americans. In fact, independent voters in our survey, by 54 to 40, said it was more important for a president to have “the willingness to fight for middle-class families” rather than a “technical understanding of the economy.”
Benenso may be on to something. In his victory speech, Obama ended this campaign with the same populist rhetoric he started with in 2008 (and that served him well in 2004). But in many ways, as Michael Grunwald noted, Obama's deeds as president had greater impact than his words.
Obama is a politician, but he really did make it a point of pride that his administration would focus on getting the policy right and letting the political chips fall where they may. Sometimes that turned out to be dumb. For example, his stimulus cut taxes for 95% of Americans, but less than 10% of them noticed it, because his economists recommended giving them a few dollars a week through reduced withholding instead of writing them fat checks as President Bush had done. His chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel, complained that the president was denying himself an “Ed McMahon moment,” the squeal of Publishers Clearinghouse pleasure that would accompany a check from Obama, and he was right.
For the most part, though, Obama’s focus on policy led to a lot of policy change. His $800 billion stimulus became a national joke, but it launched a quiet clean energy revolution, dragged our medical system into the digital age, launched the most ambitious education reforms in decades, and saved the country from a depression. The political smart set warned that Obama was committing political suicide by focusing on health care instead of jobs and letting his reforms languish in Congress for months. But he plowed ahead, and achieved the longstanding Democratic dream of near universal health insurance.
The original rap on Obama was that he was a words guy, but he turned out to be a deeds guy, better at achieving than marketing his achievements. He’s done a lot, from Wall Street reform to student loan reform to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and quite a bit of it was politically risky. He took more political risks in Afghanistan and Libya and the fight against al Qaeda. He criticized that white cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates, regulated coal plants in swing states, and dropped his opposition to gay marriage. And what were the consequences? A 50% approval rating in a 50-50 nation, even though unemployment remained high throughout his term. Would he would have been any more popular if he had punted on health reform, as so many pundits advised?
In addition to reelecting President Obama, voters rewarded candidates who fought against inequality — Democrats and Republicans. Of the twelve House members awarded an "A+" on the International for Policy Studies' inequality report card, eleven won their races. Three of the five Senators who scored top marks — Sherrod Brown (D, OH), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) — won reelection. Meanwhile, many "middle-class zeros" were defeated, and a number of progressive candidates won.
If the president's words and deeds spoke to Americans' deepest concerns, American's let their votes speak for them in ballot initiatives that reflect the values that define an American they want to live in.
- Alabama voters defeated a stealth constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the constitutional guarantee to of a right to a public education.
- California voters:
- passed a ballot measure to increase taxes on people earning $250,000 or more, and earmark the revenue for public schools and college;
- defeated a measure that would effectively stop unions from making political contributions; and
- passed a measure that closes a loophole that allowed businesses to avoid paying state taxes;
- defeated an amendment that would have capped state revenue based on population, and could have kept government services from keeping up with demand; and
- defeated an amendment prohibiting the use of public funds for abortions, except when required by federal law, or when a woman's life was endangered.
- rejected a proposal to eliminate the estate tax in their state; and
- approved a measure that diverts funds from the corporate kicker tax, which is a rebate to corporations and individuals given during a revenue surplus, to a fund for public schools.
In many cases, the outcome of votes on these ballot measures and amendments was a defeat for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which had a hand in designing many of the defeated measures.
The forces and phenomena that shaped the 2012 election will likely be the subject of debate for years to come. The result, however, seems clear. Democrats emerge from 2012 with their strongest mandate yet for bold, progressive action.
Indeed, we are a nation in progress. American voters themselves took the lead in 2012. With their votes for candidates who's populist and progressive messages spoke to their value, and their votes on ballot measures and initiatives closer to home, American voters have shown the way … well … "Forward." The party and candidates that follow their lead will probably be rewarded with their votes for many elections to come.