Twenty-seven years after driving from New York City to Chicago in a $2,000 Honda Civic for a job that probably wouldn’t amount to much, Barack Obama, in better shape but with grayer hair, stood in the presidential suite on the top floor of the Fairmont Millennium Park hotel as flat screens announced his re-election as President of the United States. The networks called Ohio earlier than predicted, so his aides had to hightail it down the hall to join his family and friends. They encountered a room of high fives and fist pumps, hugs and relief.
The final days of any campaign can alter the psyches of even the most experienced political pros. At some point, there is nothing to do but wait. Members of Obama’s team responded in the only rational way available to them — by acting irrationally. They turned neckties into magic charms and facial hair into a talisman and compulsively repeated past behaviors so as not to jinx what seemed to be working. In Boca Raton, Fla., before the last debate, they dispatched advance staff to find a greasy-spoon diner because they had eaten at a similar joint before the second debate, on New York’s Long Island. They sent senior strategist David Axelrod a photograph of the tie he had to find to wear on election night: the same one he wore in 2008. Several staffers on Air Force One stopped shaving, like big-league hitters in the playoffs. Even the President succumbed, playing basketball on Election Day at the same court he played on before winning in 2008.
But now it was done, and reason had returned. Ever since the campaign computers started raising the odds of victory from near even to something like surefire, Obama had been thinking a lot about what it meant to win without the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of that first national campaign. The Obama effect was not ephemeral anymore, no longer reducible to what had once been mocked as “that hopey-changey stuff.” It could be measured — in wars stopped and started; industries saved, restructured or reregulated; tax cuts extended; debt levels inflated; terrorists killed; the health-insurance system reimagined; and gay service members who could walk in uniform with their partners. It could be seen in the new faces who waited hours to vote and in the new ways campaigns are run. America debated and decided this year: history would not record Obama’s presidency as a fluke.
In mid-December, as Obama settles into one of the Oval Office’s reupholstered chairs — brown leather instead of Bush’s blue and gold candy stripes — the validation of Election Day still hovers around him, suggesting that his second four years in office may turn out to be quite different from his first. Beyond the Oval Office, overwhelming challenges remain: deadlocked fiscal-cliff talks; a Federal Reserve that predicts years of high unemployment; and more unrest in places like Athens, Cairo and Damascus. But the President seems unbound and gives inklings of an ambition he has kept in check ever since he arrived at the White House to find a nation in crisis.
Two years ago, Republicans liked to say that the only hard thing Obama ever did right was beating Hillary Clinton in the primary, and in electoral terms, there was some truth to that. In 2012 the GOP hoped to cast him as an inspiring guy who was not up to the job. But now we know the difference between the wish and the thing, the hype and the man in the office. He stands somewhat shorter, having won 4 million fewer votes and two fewer states than in 2008. But his 5 million-vote margin of victory out of 129 million ballots cast shocked experts in both parties, and it probably would have been higher had so much of New York and New Jersey not stayed home after Hurricane Sandy. He won many of the toughest battlegrounds walking away: Virginia by 4 points, Colorado by 5 and the lily white states of Iowa and New Hampshire by 6. He untied Ohio’s knotty heartland politics, picked the Republican lock on Florida Cubans and won Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wis. (Those last two data points especially caught the President’s interest.) He will take the oath on Jan. 20 as the first Democrat in more than 75 years to get a majority of the popular vote twice. Only five other Presidents have done that in all of U.S. history.
here are many reasons for this, but the biggest by far are the nation’s changing demographics and Obama’s unique ability to capitalize on them. When his name is on the ballot, the next America — a younger, more diverse America — turns out at the polls. In 2008, blacks voted at the same rate as whites for the first time in history, and Latinos broke turnout records. The early numbers suggest that both groups did it again in 2012, even in nonbattleground states, where the Obama forces were far less organized. When minorities vote, that means young people do too, because the next America is far more diverse than the last. And when all that happens, Obama wins. He got 71% of Latinos, 93% of blacks, 73% of Asians and 60% of those under 30.
That last number is the one Obama revels in most. When he talks about the campaign, he likes to think about the generational shift the country is going through on topics like gay marriage — an issue on which he lagged, only to reverse himself last spring. He connects it to the optimism he felt as a young man, the same thing he always talks about with staff in the limo or on the plane after visits with campaign volunteers. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” reads one of the quotes stitched into his new Oval Office rug — an old abolitionist cry that Martin Luther King Jr. repurposed while marching on Selma, Ala. Obama believes in that, and he believes he is more than just a bit player in the transition. “I do think that my eight years as President, reflecting those values and giving voice to those values, help to validate or solidify that transformation,” he says, “and I think that’s a good thing for the country.”
So even before the first ad ran, Obama had an edge and a way of framing the race. While Romney tried to focus on Obama’s weak economic record, Obama made his race about confidence. The most important poll question in Chicago was, Which candidate is looking out for voters like you? “What we saw these undecided voters doing for literally a year,” Simas says, “looking at two very different people outside fundamental message, tactics and strategy, is, they were making a very trust-based assessment between Obama and Romney.”
This became the through line of the brutal and at times unfair Obama attacks on Romney — the cracks about car elevators, the specious mention of his potentially felonious Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the false claim that he supported an abortion ban without a rape exception, the endless harping on a Swiss bank account once held in his wife’s name. It all spoke to a central message built around trust: One man, despite his failures, had voters like you in mind. The other man, by contrast, knew how to make a lot of money for people you will never meet.
In its second incarnation, the Obama campaign began to blur and then obliterate the line between politics and daily life for millions of Americans. The President held off-the-record calls with FM disc jockeys in black and Hispanic communities. Aides signed up Latinos at amateur soccer leagues, circulated clipboards in bars and nightclubs and canvassed blockbuster-movie-premiere lines for new voters. “In Chapel Hill for a wedding,” White House aide Tommy Vietor e-mailed Plouffe in mid-September from North Carolina. “Multiple people with Obama clipboards have tried to register me to vote in the 5 hours I’ve been here.” Later that night, Vietor read the specials scribbled on a chalkboard at a bar. The Obama was a shot of Jack Daniel’s and a Pabst Blue Ribbon for $7. The Romney was a shot of Johnnie Walker Gold and a bottle of 1995 Altamura cabernet for $870. The message was breaking through.
In the wake of the killings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, Obama asked if the country and its President had done enough in his first term to deal with mass shootings. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no, we’re not doing enough,” he said before promising to “use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental-health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” He had made similar vows before, after other shootings. But this one affected him more. Never had he cast the issue so starkly as a question of moral and political courage. Never before had he so clearly reproached himself for failing to take action
Obama says he long ago decided that he should not compare himself to Lincoln. But he nonetheless begins his second term with a better sense of what is possible in his job as well as what is not, something Lincoln struggled with as well. “You do understand that as President of the United States, the amount of power you have is overstated in some ways,” Obama says. “But what you do have the capacity to do is to set a direction.” He has earned the right to set that direction and has learned from experience how to move the country. After four of the most challenging years in the nation’s history, his chance to leave office as a great President who was able to face crises and build a new majority coalition remains within reach.