Barack Obama may have won the election, but it is a victory devoid of triumph. The tough win means that the president will have to take small steps to achieve his political goals during his second term in office. This could ultimately pay off for his party in the long run.
Barack Obama made history in 2008. But only now has he completed his personal success story. If American voters had failed to re-elect their first African-American president, it would have tainted Obama permanently with the flaw of something left incomplete, leaving him a historically important president, yet ultimately not a significant one -- the latter distinction being one Americans generally reserve for presidents who make it to a second term.
Had he suffered electoral defeat, Obama might have remained forever the "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job," as a headline in the satirical website The Onion joked after his election four years ago. He might well have ended up being the right man at the wrong time, having failed because of one of the worst economic crises in United States' history. His defeat could have meant a serious blow to the morale of America's newly self-confident black population.
Obama didn't lose, though. But does this mean the Democratic candidate has achieved a historical triumph?
No, it does not. Obama ran a lackluster election campaign, one distinguished more by harsh attacks on his opponent Mitt Romney than by pride in his own accomplishments. Just how narrow the victory was can be seen in the popular vote count. While the incumbent easily defeated his challenger in the Electoral College, he only managed to eke out a razor thin majority of total votes cast.
"Go vote" ultimately became the mantra at Obama rallies as the campaign drew to a close, a more pragmatic appeal that replaced the earlier, visionary slogans "Hope" and "Change." It was essential to re-elect Obama, because he had not yet completed his difficult task -- this was the pared-down message of the president's campaign for a second term.
A Weak Opponent
Nor was this absurdly long and absurdly expensive electoral battle a historic duel, not at all comparable to Obama's epic struggle against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. Republican candidate Romney proved instead to be an opponent who will quickly be forgotten by history -- an inept, even awkward politician.
Far more historic in this election was the Republican Party's foolishness in failing to make a decisive effort to attract the minority groups that increasingly determine the outcome of American elections. African-American voters were expected to stand by Obama. But Hispanic voters could well have been drawn to the conservatives, given the difficult economic situation in which the US finds itself. But faced with the Republican Party's heavy-handed xenophobia, something Romney cultivated assiduously at least during the primaries, a vast majority of Hispanic Americans cast their votes for the incumbent.
American elections can no longer be won on the strength of white men's votes alone. The Republican Party must recognize that the increasing numbers of immigrants and Americans descended from immigrants not only plan to remain in the country, but they want to be involved in the decision-making process too. Even right-wing hardliner and Fox News television host Bill O'Reilly has acknowledged that "the white establishment is now the minority."
Economic Growth Takes Priority
But will Obama's second term begin as his first did -- with his policies being blockaded by Republican lawmakers? Republicans still have the majority in the House of Representatives. And it is in no way clear that the Grand Old Party will draw the same conclusion from its 2012 defeat as it did in 1964 when radical Republican candidate Barry Goldwater lost.
Back then, the party made a move to the political middle. But as early as Tuesday evening, some conservatives had already begun blaming their election defeat on Romney for being too moderate and suggesting that his far more radical running mate Paul Ryan might be the party's future hope.
With this in mind, Obama will have to be humble, which would be good for both the president and his party. In contrast to the election in 2008, the results of which the Democrats falsely interpreted as a broad mandate, Obama must for now tackle the issue that is most important to the American people -- jumpstarting the economy and creating more jobs. Around 60 percent of US voters told exit pollsters that this is their most important concern.
Obama, of course, also won't be able to give priority to controversial and divisive projects like his historic health reform. Still, this new modesty could be beneficial, because if Obama manages to preside over an American economy that begins growing once again as many economists predict, then the chances that another Democrat will succeed him in 2016 will increase significantly.
That person could be his former rival Hillary Clinton, who plans to step down from her position as secretary of state and get some rest, which insiders say could mean she is preparing a run for the White House. Perhaps her husband Bill played such an enthusiastic role in Obama's campaign as part of such a succession plan.
If this is the case, 2016 could be another historic election. The country's first black president could be followed by the first woman president, heralding a new progressive age for the United States of America.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH