Why Obama won

Issue: 137

Megan Trudell

“The people who delivered [Obama] a second term…are those who were least likely to have benefited from his first”.1 Journalist Gary Younge’s comment on the re-election of Barack Obama in the United States sums up the contradiction at the heart of the election campaign. The 2012 election took place after four years of a Democratic administration that has presided over growing inequality, protecting the profits of the wealthiest and exacerbating economic pain for the majority of working Americans. Obama has failed to deliver on the hopes and aspirations for change that were so dramatically raised by his historic victory in 2008. His government’s record in the domestic field and internationally has been covered extensively in this journal over the last four years and so will not be repeated in detail here, but put briefly: bank bailouts, inadequate stimulus measures and the protection and extension of privilege among the elite in the US has widened the gap between rich and poor and angered millions who have borne the brunt of spiralling unemployment, attacks on education, wage cuts and productivity drives, while a continuation of Bush era foreign policy has alienated millions around the world who had hopes of a more benign form of US imperialism.2

Yet Obama was re-elected—although with considerably less enthusiasm than in 2008—largely because voters felt that the Republicans would be worse; Obama and the Democrats were seen as being the lesser of the two evils on offer. The choice facing US voters was singularly uninspiring: On the one hand an incumbent whose policies added to, rather than alleviated, the burdens on working class Americans; on the other a businessman worth an estimated $250 million and his Tea Party backed running mate.

However, while Republican gains in the Congressional elections in 2010 came on the back of the rising Tea Party tide, Ryan’s selection and Romney’s tacking to the right during the campaign were part of a gamble that didn’t come off. The selection of Tea Party supporters to run for the Republicans backfired on this occasion, with Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock both losing Senate races after their comments on rape and pregnancy—respectively, that women’s bodies would reject pregnancies caused by “legitimate” rape, and that pregnancy after rape was “God’s plan”.

So what has changed in the two years since the Republicans swept the board in 2010? Much has been made of demographic changes in the US, and the fact that single women, young people, and non-white voters—part of what has come to be known as the Rising American Electorate—voted in large numbers to deliver Obama’s second term. And it is certainly the case that Obama’s support among single women, Hispanic voters and young people was crucial, and for obvious reasons.

The right-wing anti-abortion politics of the likes of Akin and Mourdock—and a great many other Republicans—has helped to push many women towards the Democrats, as does the fact that women tend to see issues like healthcare and reproductive choice as economic rather than social. As Jess McIntosh, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, a group committed to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office, puts it: “Birth control is only a social issue if you never have to pay for it”.3 Ironically, in the case of Indiana where Mourdock was defeated this was by Joe Donnelly, an anti-abortion Democrat—the proximity of the two evils easy to see on this occasion.

The 2 million donors to EMILY’s List are overwhelmingly middle class women; nonetheless, it is an important point that for working class women as well reproductive rights are a central issue and it is not difficult to see how the continual threat posed to such rights by right wing Republican rhetoric would push many women voters towards the only apparent (electoral) alternative.

Another critical support for Obama was the vote of non-whites, especially the rising Hispanic vote. Nationally, non-white voters made up 28 percent of all voters, up from 26 percent in 2008. Obama won 80 percent of these voters, the same as four years ago. This support was a critical factor in battleground states, especially Ohio and Florida. In Ohio blacks made up 15 percent of voters, up from 11 percent in 2008. In Florida, Hispanics were 17 percent of voters, a slight increase from 14 percent in 2008. Nationally, Romney won the white vote, 59 percent to 39 percent—but the numbers of whites voting overall fell.4 Again this is not a surprise when the aggressive anti-immigration positions of much of the Republican Party are contrasted with Obama’s suggestion of allowing illegal immigrants who work to apply for citizenship.

However, beneath these apparent differences between the two parties as explanation for the result lie more fundamental shifts in the US political landscape that have less to do with demographics and more to do with the emergence during the last two years of an alternative pole of attraction to the Tea Party bandwagon. This is not, however it is articulated during an election campaign, represented by the Obama administration, but by the growth of genuine grassroots radical movements. The campaign and the result were conditioned as much by the resurgence of working class action demonstrated so powerfully in the immigrants’ “day without us” demonstrations in 2009, the strike in Madison and the Occupy movement last year, and the victorious Chicago teachers’ strike that took place in the midst of the election campaign.

It was poetic justice that the elitism and arrogance of the 1 percent in the US were seen as driving the Romney machine relatively early on in the campaign. In May, Romney’s comments to wealthy supporters at a fundraising dinner held at the Florida home of millionaire private equity manager Marc Leder exposed his disdain for ordinary Americans:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it… And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what… These are people who pay no income tax… My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Delightfully for the 99 percent, and devastatingly for him, Romney’s comments were most likely filmed by one of the people he disparaged so disgracefully—the video published on YouTube in mid-September shows white gloved waiters serving the audience, who had paid $50,000 per person to hear Romney’s class vitriol.5

This perception that the Republicans represented the rich to a greater extent than did the Democrats benefited Obama, and owes much to the ideological impact of the demonstrations against Tea Party governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and, crucially, the Occupy movement. The fact that the Democrats are not worthy inheritors of people’s anger and rejection of the 1 percent is besides the point, Obama’s victory this time around had the definite whiff of class battle about it.

In exit polls in November 81 percent of voters said that Obama “cared for people like me”, against only 18 percent for Romney.6 The accurate perception that Romney represented the very rich, the 1 percent, was a key component in the Republican defeat. Obama won three out of five voters whose family incomes are below $50,000. Among middle-income voters Romney led 52 percent to 46 percent, and 54 percent to 44 percent among voters with family incomes of $100,000 or more.7

The result was, however, hardly a ringing endorsement of Obama as representing the 99 percent. Turnout was lower than in 2008 and fully 40 percent of eligible voters—93 million people—did not vote at all or voted for third-party candidates. Interestingly, recent research on non-voters shows that they are generally to the left of mainstream politicians and were more likely to lean toward Obama than Romney:

Far more non-voters than voters favour activist government. About half of non-voters (52 percent) say the government should do more to solve problems, while 40 percent say the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. The balance of opinion is reversed among likely voters: 56 percent say the government is doing too much, while 39 percent say the government should do more to solve problems. By 46 percent to 31 percent, more non-voters favour keeping the 2010 healthcare law in place than repealing the law; 23 percent do not express an opinion. Voters are more evenly divided, with 49 percent favoring the law’s repeal and 43 percent saying it should remain in place; just 8 percent do not express an opinion.8

This is unsurprising when we consider who non-voters are. They are more likely to be poorer and younger than those who vote; more likely to have suffered directly from the consequences of the recession and to feel that nothing changes for them, whoever is elected:

Non-voters are younger, less educated and less affluent than are likely voters. More than a third (36 percent) of non-voters are younger than 30, compared with just 13 percent of likely voters. Just 13 percent of non-voters are college graduates and about the same percentage (14 percent) have family incomes of $75,000 or more. Among likely voters, 38 percent are college graduates and a third (33 percent) have family incomes of $75,000 or more.9

The figures suggest that a great many Americans reject the elitism and anti working class policies of both parties, whether they do so consciously or more passively; there is a strong sense that neither party speaks for ordinary people; the difference this time around is the glimpse of a potential alternative to the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the barren “democratic” process.

As Lance Selfa has written, Obama’s victories in the two battleground states of Wisconsin and Ohio were largely a result of union households voting and campaigning against the Republicans. In the results in these states:

It’s hard not to see the impact of a broader labour mobilisation in the major battles fought over union rights against hard-right Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin—the massive popular uprising against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights, and labour mobilisation to defeat similar legislation from Ohio Governor John Kasich in a lopsided referendum victory one year ago.10

Most important has been the example during the election campaign of the Chicago teachers’ strike. This was a week-long dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and Obama favourite, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, over a raft of education “reforms”, including school closures and linking teachers’ jobs to student results, essentially a battle over the privatisation of education and the creation of educational “apartheid” in the city. The timing of the strike was hardly to the Democrats’ liking:

“Scaling back or postponing their battle with Obama’s former chief of staff would have been much more palatable to CTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, and to national Democratic leaders, who feared Obama would lose votes no matter which side he came down on,” wrote Labor Notes. The teachers went ahead with the strike, and “many credit their strong support among public school parents—who supported the strike two to one—to their unsparing criticism of politicians on both sides of the aisle who stood in the way of the schools Chicago students deserved.”

CTU vice-president Jesse Sharkey described union members’ collective ability to put the Democrats over a barrel: “The Democrats and the Obama campaign had a problem. If they were going to demonise CTU or try and bust our union, then it makes it pretty clear how anti-union their policies are, and that it’s Democrats, not the Republicans, pushing those policies this time”.11

More of the same?

The rise of organised working class struggle represents the possibility of breaking the stultifying non-choice of the US electoral system and building a genuine radical movement. It could not be taking place at a more important time. Bitter as the consequences of economic downturn have been so far, worse is yet to come if the US ruling class has its way.

The Obama campaign made much of the fact that the economy is slowly improving. However, although the unemployment rate is lower than at the height of the recession, it is still over 12 million, where it was in January 2009 and before that not since 1982, and has increased slightly since the summer.12 And average pay continues to fall—hourly pay was down by a penny to $23.58 in October.

If Congress pushes through austerity measures that will result from the “fiscal cliff”—the expiration of tax cuts made by the Bush government and the imposition of a 10 percent cut in government spending scheduled at the end of 2012—US workers have a significant fight on their hands. The fiscal cliff will almost certainly push the fragile US economy back into recession and the combination of tax rises for most Americans and swingeing cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be devastating for the worst off. The Bush era tax breaks for the rich that are also due to expire if allowed to do so—quite a big “if”—will certainly elicit howls of rage from the wealthy and further polarise the political landscape.

There is a very clear message from the US government that ordinary Americans will be expected to pay for the crisis, and the fiscal cliff is being used to force through cuts and austerity that are about maximising profit and stripping back workers’ rights yet further. There should be no illusions about where Obama stands on this question. In October, in an interview with an Iowa newspaper, Obama made clear his commitment to austerity measures: “It will probably be messy. It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending, and work to reduce the costs of our healthcare programmes”.13

At the same time, “US companies are booking higher profits than ever. But…corporate tax receipts as a share of profits are at their lowest level in at least 40 years”.14

Obama owes his re-election, at least in part, to the changing political culture created by the movements against his policies. Those movements can form the framework of a serious challenge to the priorities of US capitalism and can rebuild union organisation and the left. Significantly, other recent strikes include those by non-unionised workers in a day of action against Walmart nationally, and a strike in New York against McDonald’s—both notorious anti-union employers.

As Jesse Sharkey summed it up: “What we saw in Occupy Wall Street, the demonstrations in Wisconsin and the teachers’ strike in Chicago was a glimpse of our own power… The difficulty is that the size of the forces that support austerity may be greater than those that will fight against it but the potential of opposition to austerity is far greater than most realise”.15


1: Younge, 2012a.

2: See Callinicos, 2012; Anievas, Fabry and Knox, 2012; Trudell, 2009; and Trudell, 2011.

3: Dailey, 2012.

4: Pew Research Center, 7 November 2012.

5: Corn, 2012.

6: http://elections.msnbc.msn.com/ns/politics/2012/all/president/#exitPoll

7: http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/06/14979402-voters-back-obama-despite-economic-concerns-exit-polls-show

8: Pew Research Center, 1 November 2012.

9: Pew Research Center, 1 November 2012.

10: Selfa, 2012.

11: Brenner, 2012.

12: www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/02/october-jobs-report-unemployment-rate_n_2063675.html

13: Obama interview with the Des Moines Register, http://foxnewsinsider.com/2012/10/24/transcript-obama-campaign-releases-transcript-of-presidents-interview-with-des-moines-register-after-insisting-that-it-be-kept-off-the-record/

14: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204662204577199492233215330.html

15: Younge, 2012b.


Anievas, Alexander, Adam Fabry and Robert Knox, 2012, “Back to ‘Normality’? US Foreign Policy under Obama”, International Socialism 136 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=846

Brenner, Mark, 2012, “Election season: let’s be watchdogs, not lapdogs”, Labor Notes (2 November).

Callinicos, Alex, 2012. “Narrowing the Bounds of the Possible: the US Election”, International Socialism 136 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=843

Corn, David, 2012, “Secret Video: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He Really Thinks of Obama Voters”, Mother Jones (17 September), www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser

Pew Research Center, 2012, “Non-Voters: Who They Are and What They Think”
(1 November), www.people-press.org/2012/11/01/nonvoters-who-they-are-what-they-think/

Dailey, Kate, 2012, “US Election: Women Are the New Majority”, BBC website (7 November), www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20231337

Pew Research Center, 2012, “Changing Face of America Helps Assure Obama Victory”
(7 November), www.people-press.org/2012/11/07/changing-face-of-america-helps-assure-obama-victory/

Selfa, Lance, 2012, ‘Blue votes, bluebloods and other election facts’, Socialist Worker (US) (14 November), http://socialistworker.org/2012/11/14/blue-voters-versus-bluebloods

Trudell, Megan, 2009, “Obama’s 100 Days”, International Socialism 133 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=553

Trudell, Megan, 2011, “The Occupy Movement and Class Politics in the US”, International Socialism 133 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=775

Younge, Gary, 2012a, “Obama’s second victory is more low key, but in some ways more impressive”, Guardian (7 November), www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/07/obama-second-victory-more-impressive

Younge, Gary, 2012b, “After Obama’s re-election, liberals need to drop the blind devotion”, Guardian (9 November), www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/09/obama-drop-blind-devotion