Barack Obama: Campaigns and Elections

Barack Obama: Campaigns and Elections

Obama’s election to the Senate instantly made him the highest-ranking African American officeholder in the country and, along with the excitement generated by his convention speech and his books (Dreams from my Father, brought back into print, joined The Audacity of Hope on the bestseller list), placed him high on the roster of prospective Democratic presidential candidates in 2008. After spending a low-profile first year in office focusing on solidifying his base in Illinois and traveling abroad to buttress his foreign policy credentials as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama spent much of 2006 speaking to audiences around the country and mulling whether to run for president. According to annual National Journal evaluations of senators' legislative voting records, Obama ranked as the first, tenth, or sixteenth most liberal member of the Senate, depending on the year.

Obama announced his presidential candidacy on February 10, 2007, at a rally in front of the Old State House in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln had given his famous “house divided” speech in 1858. Relying heavily on the Internet, the Obama campaign mobilized Obama for America (OFA), a massive grassroots organization of volunteers and donors. (After he was elected, OFA was recast as Organizing for America for the purpose of rousing public support for Obama’s legislative initiatives.) With Axelrod again at the helm, the campaign developed a strategy for winning the Democratic nomination that relied on assembling the same coalition of blacks and white liberals that had enabled him to succeed in Illinois, with an additional focus on young voters. Initially, however, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton opened a strong lead in the polls, even among African American voters and leaders who admired her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and did not think Obama had much of a chance to win. Former Senator John Edwards, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2004, was also widely regarded at the start of the campaign as a stronger candidate than the inexperienced Obama.

Drawing on his online base of supporters, Obama initially surprised political pundits by matching Clinton and besting Edwards in campaign fundraising throughout 2007. He became the co-frontrunner in the race by winning the crucial Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008, defeating both Edwards and Clinton by an 8-percentage point margin. Clinton rebounded to win the New Hampshire primary five days later, edging out Obama by 3 points and crushing Edwards by 22 points. In the next important test, Obama opened up a narrow lead in the nomination contest by defeating Clinton handily in the South Carolina primary, 55 percent to 27 percent, on January 26. Black voters, convinced by the Iowa results that whites would vote for an African American candidate for president, gave him overwhelming support in South Carolina and in subsequent primaries. Edwards finished a distant third in the state where he was born and dropped out of the race on January 30. Other contenders for the nomination, including Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, had already dropped out because of their poor showings in the initial round of primaries and caucuses.

What did Clinton and Obama think of each other?From February through early June, Obama and Clinton battled fiercely through the remaining primaries and caucuses. Overall, Clinton won twenty primaries to Obama’s nineteen, including victories in most of the large states, notably California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Both candidates were bidding to become historic “firsts”—the first African American president or the first woman president.

But Obama had three crucial advantages that enabled him to eke out a narrow victory for the Democratic nomination. First, he was able to contrast his consistent opposition to the war in Iraq with Clinton’s vote in 2002 to authorize the war before later turning against it. Second, although there was little difference between Clinton and Obama on the issues, Obama ran on a theme of change and Clinton on a theme of experience. In a year when the economy was steadily deteriorating, change was the more appealing theme, especially among Democratic voters. Third, while fighting Clinton in the thirty-nine primaries, Obama did not overlook the seventeen states and territories that, like Iowa, choose their national convention delegates through caucuses. He strongly out-organized Clinton in those contests, winning fourteen of seventeen caucuses. The delegates Obama won in the caucuses put him over the top. Clinton withdrew from the nominating contest on June 7, 2008.

As hard-fought as his victory was, Obama faced only one serious crisis during the entire nomination campaign. In early March, news organizations and websites showed video recordings of some controversial sermons by Obama’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, including one in which Wright blamed the United States for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington and another in which he accused the federal government of “inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” Obama largely defused the crisis by giving a speech in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, repudiating Wright's statements and thoughtfully outlining his own views on race relations. But he faced continuing difficulties winning white working class votes against Clinton in the primaries, and some doubted that he could win their support in the general election against the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Partly to expand his appeal to working-class whites, and partly to offset his own modest foreign policy credentials, Obama named Senator Joe Biden of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate on August 22, two days before the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Biden had grown up in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania, and during his thirty-six years as a senator from Delaware, had risen up the seniority ladder to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

In his acceptance speech on the last night of the convention, Obama outlined the issues of his general election campaign. Among other things, Obama promised to “cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families,” “end our dependence on oil from the Middle East,” “invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy,” provide “affordable, accessible health care for every single American,” close “corporate loopholes and tax havens that don't help America grow,” “end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” and allow “our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to visit the person they love in a hospital and live lives free of discrimination.”

Obama left Denver on August 29 enjoying a small lead over McCain in the polls. But on that same day, McCain stole Obama's thunder by selecting Governor Sarah T. Palin of Alaska as his running mate. Palin balanced the Republican ticket in some obvious ways: young rather than old (Palin was forty-four, McCain was seventy-two), a woman rather than a man, a governor rather than a senator, and a social conservative rather than a national security conservative. At the same time, Palin's reform record in Alaska reinforced McCain's longstanding image as a political “maverick” who bucked the Washington establishment. Her rousing acceptance speech at the convention helped to propel the Republican ticket into a small lead over Obama and Biden in early September.

McCain maintained his narrow advantage in the polls until mid-September, when the nation's financial sector, heavily invested in risky mortgage-backed securities, went into a sudden tailspin. In the three nationally televised debates between the presidential candidates that took place from September 26 to October 15, Obama's calm, confident, and competent demeanor impressed voters who were looking for both reassurance that all would be well and a change in the nation's direction. By eschewing federal campaign funds, Obama was also able to outspend McCain substantially on media advertising and grassroots organizing. In addition, Biden impressed most voters as a much more qualified choice for vice president than Palin, whose unfamiliarity with national and international issues was revealed in a series of television interviews. And, much to his credit, McCain refused to revive concerns about Obama's long association with Reverend Wright for fear of inflaming racial tensions.

Obama was elected handily on November 4, 2008. He defeated McCain by 53 percent to 46 percent in the national popular vote. Exit polls revealed that the two candidates broke even among voters who had participated in the 2004 election. But Obama built his majority among first-time voters who surged to the polls in 2008, many of them young or African American. In the Electoral College, Obama prevailed by a margin of 365 to 173. While carrying all of the traditionally “blue” states in the Northeast, Pacific Coast, and Great Lakes region, Obama built his majority by winning previously “red” states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Colorado.

Election night inspired gracious oratory by both candidates. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” Obama told a cheering crowd of supporters, “who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Conceding defeat, McCain said, “This is a historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight. We both realize that we have come a long way from the injustices that once stained our nation's reputation.”

Midterm Election of 2010

From the very start of Obama’s tenure as president, congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of consistent, strenuous opposition to most of his legislative initiatives. Politically, the strategy bore fruit in the 2010 midterm elections. As Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota said, “Their bumper sticker has one word: 'No.' Our bumper sticker has way too many words. And it says: 'Continued on the next bumper sticker.'”

Looking at the stubbornly high unemployment rate Obama inherited on taking office, many voters refused to accept the president's argument that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had kept joblessness from rising even higher. Voters who were satisfied with their health insurance continued to worry that Obama’s plan for health care reform would increase the cost and reduce the quality of medical care. The new grassroots conservative Tea Party movement fueled a surge in turnout among Republican voters in 2010 even as participation among Obama's core constituencies in 2008—young and African American voters—declined. On election day, the Republicans gained 6 seats in the Senate, reducing the Democrats' majority in that chamber from 18 (59 to 41) to 6 (53 to 47). The GOP added 63 seats in the House of Representatives, enough to gain control of the House by a 242 to 193 majority in the 112th Congress.

The certainty that divided government—a Republican House and a Democratic Senate and president—would prevail for the remainder of Obama's first term persuaded the president and the leaders of both parties to act on a variety of important issues during the post-2010 election “lame duck” session of Congress. With George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts set to expire on December 31, 2010, Obama put aside his opposition to continuing them for families with more than $250,000 in annual income and agreed to allow congressional Republicans to keep the cuts in place. In return, the GOP accepted President Obama's proposal to extend unemployment benefits for jobless workers for a longer period, and both parties embraced a one-year reduction in social security taxes for everyone who pays them.

In addition, Congress and the president agreed to abolish President Bill Clinton's “don't ask, don't tell” policy preventing openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military. Republicans feared that federal courts were about to order immediate integration of homosexuals into the armed services. General Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, persuaded them that the military was prepared to accept the change if allowed to implement it gradually. The lame duck session also saw the Senate ratify the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia by a 71 to 26 vote.

The 2012 Election

President Obama entered the 2012 election year with job approval ratings that were dangerously low (roughly 40 percent) and an unemployment rate that was dangerously high (more than 8 percent) for an incumbent seeking reelection. But, like Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004, Obama benefited enormously from not having to fight for his party's nomination. Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George Bush in 1992 had to wage such battles, and each of them was defeated by his general election opponent in November. In contrast, Obama was able to use the first eight months of 2012 to raise money, rebuild his campaign organization, develop lines of attack on his likely Republican opponents, and launch his general election campaign from a united, enthusiastic Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Caroline, in September 2012. Following the pattern of reelection-seeking presidents since the 1950s, Obama chose Vice President Biden to run with him for a second term.

While Obama was uniting his party for the fall, the Republicans were waging a fierce intraparty battle to choose their nominee. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the nomination, but was subjected to severe attacks by his Republican rivals. For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Romney of having “looted” companies during his career as a business consultant and branded him a “vulture capitalist.” Governor Rick Perry of Texas said that Romney had gotten rich by “sticking it to someone else.” Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Representative Michelle Bachman of Minnesota, and businessman Herman Cain were among the other Republican contenders who battered Romney relentlessly for being insufficiently conservative. Romney won the nomination and placated conservatives by choosing the chair of the House Budget Committee, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as his vice presidential running mate in advance of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. But only then was he able to focus on raising money for the general election, move toward the more popular political center, and direct his campaign toward defeating Obama.

The Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates to corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to spend massive amounts of money in an effort to elect either Obama or Romney, as well as in the congressional elections. By year's end, about $1 billion was spent by or on behalf of each of the two nominees for president, both of whom eschewed federal financing and the spending limits that accompanied that financing.

In a closely divided country, both Romney and Obama counted on winning about twenty states and fought the campaign in about ten “battleground” states. Some of them were large such as Florida and Ohio, and some of them were small such as New Hampshire and Iowa, but all of them were neither consistently “red” nor consistently “blue.” Romney's best moment came in the first presidential debate, in which he came across as politically moderate and personally engaging. Obama, like many incumbents, turned in a rusty and therefore ineffective performance. But, chastened by his weak showing, Obama came back strongly in the second and third debates and regained his lead over Romney.

Toward the end of the campaign, the unemployment rate finally dipped below 8 percent, reinforcing Obama's claim that his economic policies had placed the nation on the road to prosperity. He also benefited from his response to Hurricane Sandy, a “super storm” that struck the Northeast in late October. Obama toured the devastated New Jersey shore with the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, who praised the president for “springing into action immediately.” In the election day exit poll, 15 percent of voters said that Obama's reaction to the hurricane was the most important factor in their decision, and 73 percent of them voted for the president.

Obama defeated Romney by 51 percent to 47 percent in the national popular vote and by 332 to 206 in the electoral vote. His margin of victory was down slightly from 2008, making him the first president since Woodrow Wilson to be reelected by a smaller majority than in his first election. Also disappointing to Obama, the House of Representatives remained in Republican control, by a margin to 234 to 201. Obama—and Democrats generally—took heart from the party’s success in the Senate elections. Even though twenty-three of their seats were on the ballot in 2012 compared with only ten for the Republicans, the Democrats actually gained two seats in the election, raising their majority in the upper chamber to 55 to 45. Still more important for the long term, Obama ran best among those groups in the electorate that were growing most rapidly: young people, single people, nonreligious people, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

Despite his victories, Obama began his second term with a very limited mandate. His campaign's one-word theme was content-free—Forward!—and most of his speeches and commercials during the election were devoted to tearing down Romney rather than offering a policy agenda for the second term. The one specific issue Obama did stress on the campaign trail—his continuing desire to raise taxes on wealthy Americans—bore fruit one month after the election, when Congress voted to raise the marginal income tax rate from 35.0 percent to 39.6 percent on households with annual incomes above $450,000. But during the campaign, he deemphasized other issues that were important to him but politically risky, including immigration reform, climate change, and gun control.

Midterm Election of 2014

The 2014 midterm election repeated the pattern of Obama’s first term: success in the presidential election followed by defeat two years later at midterm. As in 2010, voter turnout was considerably lower in 2014 than it had been two years previously: 34 percent in 2014 (the lowest in a national election since 1942) compared with 58 percent in 2012. Because midterm electorates tend to have a higher concentration of the older and more conservative white voters who tend to favor Republican candidates, the Democrats were likely to suffer. Adding to their disadvantage in the Senate elections was that Democrats held 21 of 36 seats on the ballot in 2014, seven of them in states that Obama had lost to Romney.

Republicans gained nine seats in the Senate elections, the largest gain for any party since 1980, and took away control of the chamber from the Democrats with a 54-46 majority. In elections to the House of Representatives, the GOP added 13 seats to their majority, increasing it to 247-188, the party’s largest House majority since 1928. The Republicans’ success extended to elections for state office. They added two to their ranks of governors, leaving them in control of the executive in 31 states. They also won majorities in ten additional state legislative chambers, giving them control of 67 of 99. These showings, too, were the GOP’s best since 1928.

The 2014 midterm election guaranteed that Obama spent the last two years of his presidency with a Republican Congress. According to Politico, on the morning after the election “he told his staff to take an hour to mope, then get back to work.” Signaling his intention going forward to rely strongly on his executive authority rather than seek legislation from Congress, he added: “We still run the largest organization on the planet, with the largest capacity to do good.”

Postscript on the 2016 Election

Although the 22nd Amendment barred Obama from seeking a third term as president in 2016, he was intensely interested in seeing a Democrat succeed him, especially because all of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination promised to seek the repeal of major parts of his legislative legacy if one of them was elected. Obama did not endorse either of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but he clearly favored Clinton as the most electable and privately discouraged Vice President Biden from entering the contest for fear of dividing his supporters between Biden and Clinton.

In the fall 2016 campaign, Obama campaigned ardently in multiple battleground states for Clinton and against the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, whom he described as “temperamentally unfit to be president.” Of Clinton, Obama declared, “There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton.” Two days after Donald Trump won the election, however, Obama met with him at the White House publicly told him, “We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”