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Obama and the Triumph of Small Margins


‘No way Mittiepoo!’  ‘Mitt Romney is checking the math.  That’s why its taking so long.’   The hubris, the excitement, and the ugliness of the cheering.   The swear words on social media are being cast with a good dosage of bile.  There have been “Olympic levels of Schadenfreude,” according to the Guardian bloggers.  True, Barack Obama has been re-elected after much guff about the nature of the challenge, an inflated expectation about how Romney might perform, and a deep misunderstanding about the nature of the previous presidency.  True, a trigger happy Mormon will not be winding his way into the corridors of power – at least those corridors associated with DC.  (For years, power in the United States has been exercised outside DC.)  But is there really much reason to cheer?

President Obama himself put it in the mechanical way that we have come to expect in an election campaign that cost $US 2.6 billion, characterised by a repetitive numbing negativity, that was so weighed down, one might even say asphyxiated by Super PACs and money heavies.  “The great thing about these campaigns is after all the TV ads, all the fundraising and all the debates and all the electioneering, it comes down to this.”  This is very much in tune with the remarks of the ever provocative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who termed the election a “battleground for capitalists.”

The United States excels in feeding two rights wings, punctuated by occasional displays of populist inanity.  The more moderate right wing won in the face of vaudeville styled extremism.   The Tea Party crew, hyperventilating with indignation, will have to wait.  The fact that Romney, afflicted by the condition of Romnesia, did not find himself the new commander-in-chief, should only give us cold comfort.

It has been said that Obama’s victory was remarkable for the fact that he managed to secure it in a time of economic stagnation, when “recovery” was taking place at a snail’s pace.  Take the observation by The Economist (Nov 10).  “No president since FDR had been re-elected with unemployment so high.” But few election victories are ever remarkable.  The Electoral College system guarantees the United States against democratic excess, and, if one were to be flippant, access as well – the founding fathers preferred controlled republicanism to unmediated democracy.  While Romney came within a shaving of a popular vote, it remained a shaving.  “Mitt Romney,” claimed the irritatingly ever present Nate Silver, “has always had difficulty drawing a winning Electoral College hand.”

At the end of the doomed day, Romney did not win those “toss up” states, as pundits so unflatteringly term them.  Obama managed to win those states he won in 2008, with Indiana and North Carolina being exceptions.  But 332 electoral college votes to 206 might look impressive, till you realise how small the victory actually was.

The America that Obama will govern for another four years is proving to be broken and increasingly ungovernable.  Abraham Lincoln’s mystical union is fraying.  For one thing, the gender gap, while ill appreciated by the GOP, shows how polarised large blocs of votes have become.  When even a gaggle of voters are still willing to back such cartoon candidates as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, divisiveness is bound to be just around the corner.  Obama secured 55 percent of women’s votes and 45 percent of men’s votes.  The story was repeated in the Senate amongst the Democratic majority, where individuals such as Chris Murphy (D-CT) won 60 percent of women’s votes to 49 percent of men’s votes (Huffington Post, Nov 8).

This is just the start.  Either the GOP is doomed in its current orientation and male-white mania, or it’s jaundiced functionaries will embrace, in time, the various groups that came out to vote for Obama in strength on November 6.   With an almost gloating sense about it, the Spanish paper El Pais suggested that, “Election night showed that any candidate aspiring to the presidency must have [Hispanics] on their side.”

U.S. congressional politics has never been more fractured, mired as it is in a strange echo of an adversarial Westminster Chamber.  The consensus politician is dead, struck down by the evolution of an almost vicious strand of partisanship.  Obama’s own reforms, notably in healthcare, were initiated without an iota of GOP support.

So, what now?  The fiscal “cliff” that is being written about with trepidation approaches (tax rises added to spending cuts, and low levels of growth), and it seems that all parties are heading for it.  Even Obama has been willing to be recalcitrant over the findings of his own Bowles-Simpson deficit commission.

The free hand is unleased, and while Obama is bound to remain contained in the Congress in terms of fiscal measures he wishes to implement, the wars of empire, executed with a more clinical ruthlessness, and his various legal manipulations are bound to continue.  The status quo in Washington has simply been reaffirmed.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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