In the face of five years of the deepest economic troubles this nation has seen since the 1930s that put voters in a bad mood, and veritable floodgates of millionaire money unleashed by Citizens United (far, far surpassing anything in American history), an incumbent President won a clear victory and over 50% of the vote. Except for FDR in 1936, Barack Obama is the only other Democratic President to win re-election in an economy this tough, and he is the only one except for FDR and Andrew Jackson to get over 50% of the vote. And beyond the Presidency, with Democrats having to defend over twice as many seats in the Senate as the Republicans and pundits earlier in this cycle suggesting that a Republican Senate was practically a lock- and again with all those hundreds of millions of dollars of millionaires’ money spent against them- the Democrats actually look like they will be picking up 2 seats.
This remarkable historic achievement was accomplished with the kind of old fashioned middle class populism that modern day DC sophisticates have been saying for 25 years doesn’t work anymore.
Little more than a year ago, in the fall of 2011 after an ugly deal with the Republicans on the debt ceiling that had followed 2 earlier deals with the Republicans on the budget that left a bad taste in Democrats’ mouths, the President was at his lowest point politically. His poll numbers were bad, his base was upset, the swing voters he was trying to court thought he looked weak. The re-election looked like it was in deep trouble.
But the President made the right political decision and made clear he was fighting for the American middle class and those young and poor people who were striving to get into it. He channeled his inner Teddy Roosevelt, giving a speech that was a tribute to TR that was the kickoff for a yearlong campaign firmly rooted in the hopes and aspirations of working and middle class voters. He enthusiastically embraced the car company bailout that had been so unpopular when he had first done it. He started strongly defending Obamacare after Democrats had run from it- and been pilloried with it- in 2010. He recess appointed aggressive consumer watchdog Rich Cordray to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and asked aggressive Wall Street prosecutor Eric Schneiderman to co-chair a new task force to investigate financial fraud. He hammered the Ryan budget for voucher-izing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid and cutting taxes for the wealthy. He stuck to his guns on boldly attacking Romney’s role at Bain Capital when Wall Street friendly Democrats were calling on him to back off. He started talking about, and working on, rebuilding our manufacturing base.
It worked. Turns out that both Democratic base voters and the mostly working class swing voters liked this new populist approach. So despite those tough odds that I discussed in the first paragraph, President Obama found his rhythm and found his way. After Mitt Romney, the perfect candidate to run a populist campaign against, became the Republican nominee, the Obama campaign established a small but steady lead in the key swing states which through all the ups and downs of a long tough campaign they never relinquished.