By Zach Crowley
In the moment, an evaluation of current events can be difficult to perform without succumbing to individual biases. For now, we may begin by noting that President Barack Obama has become the 14th of 44 men to earn a second term as President of the United States. But what does his election mean right now?
The United States faces profound questions, too numerous to be listed here. We will be tempted to measure the President in his second term by how well he deals with these challenges. But as the beginning of his second term approaches, and those problems remain unresolved, we may at the least measure his election by what the President purports to represent (in contrast to his opponent).
Americans tend to view their troubles through two related but different lenses, and these lenses have informed the two great parties of this nation. These two visions may best be positively explained as one of idealism and optimism and one of pragmatic concern.
One vision is generally attributed to those who do not believe the last half-century has been kind to America. These views tend to be held by older, more white, more rural Americans whose vision of this world contrasts sharply with the world they expected. To them the world today is less rich, less optimistic and less fortunate than what their parents inherited. The proper posture of the politician who holds these views is conservative, holding tight to what we have, preferring unfettered capitalism to retain our wealth, realpolitik and a bristling masculine foreign policy to regain our lost international standing.
Others, particularly in our cities, feel differently. They find much to fret over since Eisenhower, but much glory, too – expanding freedoms and access for women and minorities, expanded opportunities for education, the decline of Soviet Russia and the fall of the Wall, the growing global connections between disparate peoples, the great access and intellectual vigor of a connected world … The proper alignment of the politician who ascribes to this theory is one of hopeful optimism, of outreach to the rest of the world, of partnership and compassion. Our president is one such politician.
Last week, when Ohio was called for Obama, many at Harvard and in the broader academic world were pleased (Members of Harvard University donated to the President in great quantity). More broadly, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party were widely approved of by the academic establishment – I recently saw a reference that 9 in 10 academics preferred the Democratic Party. I cannot verify the number, but my expectation is that the figure is at least representative of the overall trend. Few academics and intellectuals seem to favor the American political right to the left.
Academic approval of the President is no great surprise. All of the good things that have happened in the last half-century of American life benefit the academic: Access to more information, more people, more viewpoints – these are catnip to the intellectual. The professor and the researcher and the student are consumed with the opportunity to know, to learn more, to understand difficult things, to feed an insatiable curiosity, to tease and stretch that creative drive. Modern America cannot be beat for the opportunities afforded this population.
But the academic is just one demographic group that has benefited in the course of the last fifty years. Minorities and women have seen their political and economic and social powers advanced through legislation and change. Meanwhile, our youth have supported President Obama with strong majorities in each of his elections.
While the conservatives have consolidated their hold upon old white men, the liberals have soundly achieved popular favor with the nation’s young people, with minorities and with women. While support for today’s brand of Republicanism can only wither, the Democrat base may continue to grow in proportional strength. As Saturday Night Live joked, a gay Hispanic woman is born every eight seconds.
The election itself was as uneventful as these things in our media-saturated age can be. After President Obama’s healthy lead slipped following the first debate and Governor Romney started to catch up in the national polls, there was some worry among the left. A sputtering economy grinned like the Cheshire cat in every Democratic nightmare – and memories of Bush election nights still smarted. But the President regained his vigor in subsequent debates, and flew to Chicago to enjoy the election in the company of his friends and family.
Meanwhile, on the day of the election, Governor Romney jetted to Ohio, next to New Hampshire and voted in Massachusetts. It took me half a day to realize why the President was ceding the last day’s work to the Governor – the President knew.
HKS graduate and Marshall Ganz-trained Jeremy Bird headed the Obama ground game. Strategy memos, talking points, and clues to their work abound online – the President’s team knew what would happen on the day of the election, knew precisely what votes they would get and what votes they would not, and so the President could dine in comfort with his wife and children while Karl Rove and the Republicans were left scrambling.
Little wonder that the party of intellectuals and inter-connectedness and knowledge had caught on to the great value and opportunities for social mobilization and data collection provided by the Internet. Many of our courses here at HKS are dedicated to teaching those theories and values. Intellectuals get the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party gets intellectuals. This victory was one for the smart kids – but the smart kids should refrain from celebrating too wildly.
A great portion of our electorate – nearly half – voted for the losing side. They have watched the last many decades pass with great concern – worried at the lack of the freedoms and opportunities they thought they had, the hopes and dreams their parents had – they have not found the world they hoped for, and until our nation’s leaders can bring the discontented an America that better speaks to them, we should expect partisan rancor and discord to continue.
If we say nothing else, we may at least say this – the President in his second term seems like he could be the man to bridge the partisan gap and do the very sort of thing our country needs. We at Harvard should continue to applaud his election and hope for good things. Hope and optimism, after all, are what he and his party do best.