Obama’s likability and celebrity were more important than his performance
President Barack Obama got his second chance.
His first term has been a literal disaster. His re-election bid, though, was anything but.
Books will be written on how he did it. A few reasons stand out now.
First, Obama is, at root, a beloved figure for vast segments of America. How could a president with such a stunningly poor record of performance still win 51 percent of the vote?
It’s easy: People like him, they really like him.
In 1996, Bill Clinton proved that like is more important than trust. This week, Barack Obama proved that like trumps performance, too.
For an enormous block of American voters, Obama is an iconoclast, and the mere recitation of bad news from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics isn’t enough to unravel the adoration they feel.
For African-Americans, he’s the standard bearer, and 95 percent supported him.
For Hispanics, he cares and he’s trying. So 70 percent supported Obama.
For single women, he is culturally connected. He relates, and they flocked to him in droves.
For young voters, he’s got swag. For this, he received 60 percent of their vote.
For 50 million or so voters these days, Obama is a cultural revolutionary — a man who matters in large measure because he shatters stereotypes about the American power structure each and every time he walks on stage.
Many conservative analysts try to discount and belittle this phenomenon. I have, too. We deride Obama as a mere celebrity, the triumph of form over substance.
But at some point, seemingly flash-in-the-pan celebrities can become enduring historical figures, often due to their achievements. It’s the difference between Sheena Easton and Madonna, the Monkees and the Beatles, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King. For a razor-thin majority of Americans, it is clear that the president has achieved that rarified status — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” be damned.
Demographics, meanwhile, have irretrievably shifted, and not in favor of Republicans as we are situated today. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of building a winning national coalition on the foundation of support from young and minority voters would have been mathematically unworkable. But time and demographics have changed that.
In 1955, political scientist V.O. Key posited that the most important features of the American political process were so-called “critical realigning elections,” moments when voter behavior shifted decisively from one prevailing order to another. Key believed that these transformative moments were entirely predictable, occurring approximately every 30 years, when generational change set the stage for a charismatic leader to sweep in and hit “reset” on the political status quo.
With the benefit of four years’ hindsight and the election results of Tuesday night, it is clear that one such realigning election took place in 2008. The two most prominent features of this realignment are:
✔ Hispanics are gobbling up an expanding portion of “market share” in the electorate. Losing 70 percent of the Hispanic vote was not an insurmountable issue 10 years ago, when there were 15 million fewer Hispanics in the United States. But now, it is. Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and New Mexico all swung to Obama due to this realignment.
✔ Young voters vote. Voters between 18 and 29 voted in even higher percentages this year than they did in 2008. The old axiom about young people not voting ain’t true anymore.
For the last 30 years, winning with seniors, white voters and independents was a surefire way to election victory. Tuesday, Romney won the vote of senior citizens in 8 of 10 battlegrounds, independents’ votes in 7 of 10 key states and the white vote in 8 of 10. Under the old political order, this would be a recipe for new drapes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But 1994 this is not.
How Republicans adapt in this new political order is a question for a separate column, but adapt we must.
In any case, a dispassionate description of the reasons for Obama’s re-election can’t obscure the profound disappointment so many Republicans and a majority of independents now feel. Shell-shocked might be more accurate. America is worse off for the president’s first term. We can only hope now that his presidency will take a new tack.
Josh Penry is the former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.