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Implications of Obama’s second term analyzed

Kristen Durbin | Friday, November 9, 2012

In the next four years of his presidency, Barack Obama will expand on the efforts of his first term in office. But he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so without a broad national base of support.

In terms of the immediate results of the election, political science professor Darren Davis said Obama’s maintenance of his 2008 electorate contributed to his reelection.

“Looking at the results, I think what stands out is the remnants of Obama’s electoral coalition from 2008,” Davis said. “It was reduced … but there were still those signs of an intact coalition that got him elected.”

Just as in 2008, Davis said Obama performed well among young voters, women, African-Americans and Latinos but garnered little support from white male voters.

Political science professor Peri Arnold said Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s reliance on white voter support – exit polls showed 89 percent of Romney’s total votes came from white voters – does not bode well for his party’s future.  

“That’s a bad sign because we are quickly becoming a minority majority country, so the problem for Republicans that emerges is that they do very well in Oklahoma, so to speak, but Oklahoma is not the future of America,” Arnold said. “The election seems to suggest kind of a remnant or older embodiment of the Republican Party in the largely white, largely older electorate.”

Despite the breadth of the president’s victory, Arnold said Obama’s close national margin of victory reflects a “problem in American politics.”

“There is a partisan cleavage in which Democrats have the advantage because their demography is the emerging national demography,” Arnold said.

Davis and Arnold said the outcome of the election revealed the Republican Party’s primary weakness in appealing to a broad electorate, as evidenced by the president’s sweep of all battleground states except North Carolina.

But both professors said strengthening that weakness by 2016 will prove challenging.

“The real dilemma for the Republican Party … may be more than a matter of what kind of candidate they put forward,” Arnold said. “It may be more of a deep cultural matter because the Republican Party is old, religious and white, which is not very appealing as America becomes less religious, less white and more diverse.”

“It’s one thing for people to suggest that the Republican Party needs to moderate and be less antagonistic, but … parties are made up of individuals, so it’s really difficult for some authority to reframe what a party stands for and what it is,” Davis said. “If the Republicans want the White House in 2016, there are things they need to do, but whether they can do it is a different story.”

That party identity will also factor into the basic function of the government’s legislative branch, Arnold said.

“We’re still in a real pickle regarding governance because of the polarization of the parties and the Republican control of the House,” he said. “The strategic problem for Obama is still figuring out how to do business with House Republicans.”

Arnold said collaboration between Congress and the president will be necessary to address the nation’s impending economic issues.

 “The initial posture of the Republicans in the House is that they don’t plan to be very flexible, especially in terms of a fiscal policy deal to avert the coming fiscal cliff, so that’s cause for immediate worry,” he said.

Continuing disagreements about marginal tax rates and the dramatic drop in the stock market over the past two days also raise questions about the ability of the government to cooperate on vital issues, Arnold said.

“Now that the election is over, what we really need to worry about is can this government govern and deal with our most central problems?” he said.

But Arnold said the president will likely be more flexible on policy in his second term without considering his prospects for reelection.

“Now that he’s not facing reelection, you’re going to find that Obama is more flexible than in his first term and willing to make deals if he can find Republicans willing to make deals with him,” Arnold said. “But the Republicans in the House right now are so ideological that it will be a real challenge for him.”

Despite that challenge, Davis said the reduction of pressure on Obama will impact the president’s governing style.

“I think you’re going to see a different Barack Obama in his second term. His presidential style and character are going to become more assertive and aggressive,” Davis said. “He’ll identify areas where he would like to have a substantial impact and focus on those things. He has to think in terms of his legacy.”

But in order to become a more effective leader, Arnold said Obama must overcome his first-term weakness of failing to discuss his decisions with the American public.

“The presidency is an office of narrative and storytelling to the American people, explaining leadership and reasons behind choices, and Obama simply wasn’t doing that. That was a really striking failure,” he said. “Now that Obama seems to realize his weakness, I think we’ll get a president who is more aware and more committed to the explanation of his leadership to the American people. Presidents are successful because they explain themselves well and have a narrative, not necessarily because of what’s happening behind closed doors.”

As the president transitions into his second term, Arnold said Obama must take care to consider the second-term precedent set by former Commanders-in-Chief.

“We as Americans and Obama as a second-term president ought to be wary of the historical pattern of traps and crises for second-term presidents,” Arnold said. “More than anything else, it’s a tendency towards overconfidence because they don’t have to run again and got a mandated reelection, so presidents have over and over again acted in ways to suggest they think they can push boundaries.”

Contact Kristen Durbin at kdurbin@nd.edu