THE PUBLIC EYE: Reappraising Obama

By Bob Burnett
Saturday November 24, 2012 - 08:34:00 AM

In the last one hundred years, only four Democrats have twice been elected President: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Obama’s reelection was doubly remarkable considering the sluggish economy, the $2 billion plus spent to defeat him, and the fact that at the beginning of his campaign many Democrats were unenthusiastic. Obviously voters reappraised the President.  

At the beginning of 2012, many Democratic stalwarts were less than thrilled by the prospect of a second Obama term. While their reasons varied, there was a common theme, “Obama hasn’t kept his promises to my constituency.” There were lingering complaints that 2009’s stimulus package should have been bigger and a communal whine, “Obama should have listened to us.” Nonetheless, by the end of the Democratic convention on September 6th most Dems had come around. They gave money, made phone calls, and traveled to swing states. As a result Obama got a higher percentage of Democratic votes than he did in 2008. 

In part, this transformation occurred because from January to September Dems scrutinized Mitt Romney and were horrified by what they saw. In January some muttered, “There’s no difference between Obama and Romney,” but nine months later none believed that. While many Democrats were not thrilled by Obama’s first-term performance, they saw him as preferable to Romney on a wide range of issues. 

Six factors affected voters’ reappraisal of the President: 

1. He’s a politician. Before the 2008 election, many Dems saw Obama as a Washington outsider, someone who could rise above politics and “bring us all together.” Four years later, Democrats acknowledged he is a politician. Barack’s not pure; he’s not the second coming. But he is a bright guy, a terrific organizer, a powerful speaker, and most important, he’s on our side. 

2. He accomplished a lot in his first term. Because Romney promised, “If elected, I will repeal Obamacare on day one,” Democrats wondered what other Obama accomplishments Romney would repeal and uncovered a long list: Wall Street reform, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, winding down the war in Afghanistan, support for reproductive health, protecting the environment, and on and on. Dems realized the President had accomplished more than they thought.  

3. He became a populist. In his State-of-the-Union address Obama said, “The defining issue of our time is how to keep that [economic] promise alive… We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Obama kept hammering at this theme and it resonated with voters. Exit polls indicated that on the attribute, “a candidate who cares about people like me,” the President overwhelmed Romney.  

4. He’s a pragmatist. In 2009, Obama got a bad rap from some Dems because they believed he did not fight hard enough for the fiscal stimulus and affordable healthcare. In March of 2011, veteran Washington columnist, Elizabeth Drew, described Obama as “a somewhat left-of-center pragmatist, and a man who has avoided fixed positions for most of his life. Even his health care proposal—denounced by the right as a ‘government takeover’ and ‘socialism’—was essentially moderate or centrist. When he cut a deal on the tax bill, announced on December 7, he pragmatically concluded that he did not have the votes to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, and in exchange for giving in on that he got significant concessions from the Republicans, such as a fairly lengthy extension of unemployment insurance and the cut in payroll taxes. Making this deal also left him time to achieve other things—ratification of the START treaty, the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.”[Emphasis added.] 

5. He’s an inconsistent communicator. Obama’s poor performance in the first Presidential debate made public what many Dems had been whispering for four years, “the Great Communicator doesn’t always communicate effectively.” The President has a history of making a terrific speech, kicking off an initiative, and then disappearing. Fortunately, that didn’t happen after the October 3rd debate; Obama realized that he had to get it together or Romney was going to kick his ass and the President rose to the challenge. 

6. He’s biracial. Much has been made of Obama being America’s first black President, but he’s our first biracial president – his mother was European-American and his father African. To be precise, Obama is our first President who is not a member of the “non-Hispanic white” category. That’s particularly significant because non-Hispanic whites are now a minority of US births and, in thirty years they will be a minority of the electorate. Republicans see this coming and it’s driving them crazy.  

President Barack Obama isn’t perfect but his election moves America forward. He’s a harbinger of a time when white men will no longer dominate American politics. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at