By now the exit pollsters, data crunchers, and enterprising reporters have filled in a picture of the Obama campaign strategy, the winning formula that helped a weak president in an era of high unemployment and low economic output win the 2012 election. As veteran political reporters at The Wall Street Journal discovered:
President Barack Obama secured a second term in November by assembling a set of discrete voting blocs into an electoral majority—nurturing support among Hispanics and African Americans, women and young people, while holding his own among working-class voters in the pivotal state of Ohio.
The goal, they said, was to expand his base particularly among minority groups, while fighting to preserve his margins among women.
So despite more than half of Americans saying the country is “seriously off on the wrong track,” Obama succeeded in expanding his base of young voters from 2008, and growing support among Hispanics and other minorities. He captured the female vote with a 12-point margin over Mitt Romney using a steady drumbeat about the GOP’s “war on women” that got a boost from Sen. Todd Akin’s sloppy remarks about rape.
But this march didn’t begin with 2012 campaign season. It began on Jan. 23, 2009.
That’s when the president, in his fourth executive order issued in under three days in office, overruled the ban on funding abortion—and abortion activism—overseas (the so-called Mexico City policy). The reversal meant non-governmental organizations could use U.S. foreign aid to promote abortion, even as a method of family planning, even in countries where abortion was illegal.
This was not the work of a president who two days earlier had declared a new era of peace and national unity rising from “the bitter swill of civil war and segregation.” This was the work of a candidate shoring up a pro-abortion voting bloc among women in 2012.
That helps to explain why—faced with persistent pleas from the country’s leading clergymen and nonprofit heads—Obama pushed ahead with the healthcare law’s contraceptive mandate and its public funding for abortion. White clergymen and college presidents, he knew, were unlikely to deliver votes his way on Nov. 6.
It helps to explain why he pushed against congressional resistance to student loan “relief”—even as student loan debt climbed to $1 trillion, the highest level of any type of consumer debt in the country. Parents concerned about the debt they and their students were taking on were unlikely to deliver the youth vote on Nov. 6; it would be students eager to get through college.
And it helps to explain the president’s summer executive decision to grant amnesty to certain illegal immigrants, another decision made without Congress passing a law. Though the president campaigned in 2008 to overhaul immigration law, he did not in his first term introduce legislation or pitch it as a priority to Congress. What he did do was by executive order in time to bolster the minority voting bloc.
It’s not new for a president of the United States to make decisions that benefit a core constituency. What’s striking about Obama’s first term is how little he led on issues that did not directly benefit one of his discrete voting blocs.
His first executive order, to close the military detention center at Guantanamo, died for lack of such support. And similarly went other issues of national security and foreign policy. Obama’s delayed surge in Afghanistan was over almost as soon as it began. Obama stood by for a massive uprising in Iran aided by organized democratic opposition, but gave a passive nod to NATO action in Libya, where Islamists seemed as likely to take over as fledgling democrats.
And when it came to the budget crisis, the president also deferred—never introducing a plan himself but setting up a deficit commission in 2010 then ignoring its proposals. That led to the budget crisis of 2011, and now the looming Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff.”
We should know soon—thanks to the budget crisis—how President Obama plans to execute a second, post-candidacy, term. Short of changing the 22nd Amendment, he will have to reach beyond the narrow blocs of voters who got him there.