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Obama Wins the Austerity Election

With the reelection of President Barack Obama on Tuesday night along with the election and in some cases reelection of a number of notable women including Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Claire McCaskill, and Maggie Hassan, the US electorate displayed quite a split in sentiment about the direction of the nation. A nation struggling in the depths of an economic meltdown expressed intense dissatisfaction with both major Presidential candidates—the President actually lost vote share from 2008, which is unusual—while still sending a message that it was fed up with the tone of politics in the US.

It was a reluctant vote of confidence for a President about whom many residents of the US have mixed feelings. The giddy sensation that accompanied the 2008 election was largely absent, as was the naïve sense of hope exhibited by so many youthful voters, many of whom are now jaded by the broken promises of the last four years and the disastrous slip of the US economy. At the same time, voters were pushing back on some of the more extremist right-wing rhetoric that had dominated the election, including both vicious attacks from Republican challengers and a slew of unsavory comments about rape.

The reelection of the President was not a terribly surprising victory, nor was it a decisive statement. Romney was a poor candidate, weakened even further by the Republican primaries, and had the Republicans been able to field a more legitimate candidate, there’s a chance the President could have been faced with a serious race for the White House. Democratic strategists as well as progressive supporters of the President should be taking note of the lessons learned during this unnecessarily close election; it should have been easy to achieve a much more definitive victory against Romney and, by extension, the GOP.

This was an election, as pundits reminded US viewers and readers constantly over the last few weeks, that revolved around the economy, and discussions about fiscal policy were key to the debates, concerns voiced by voters, and endless political advertisements with which mailboxes, phones, and televisions were deluged. And this was, indeed, an election about the economy, but not in the sense that many seemed to think.

This was an election about austerity.

Fundamentally, the stirrings of class war nipping at the underbelly of the United States were seething beneath the surface, ready to boil over. As the President discussed attempts to reform and retain entitlement programmes intended to protect the most vulnerable people in the US, his opponent cheerfully promised to slash them, making this in fact a key component of his so-called fiscal policy. While Mr. Romney didn’t feel inclined to share his magic plan for fixing the economy with voters, comments he dropped indicated that much of it involved gutting social services while propping up businesses.

Apparently voters didn’t trust Romney’s somewhat nebulous plans for ‘fixing’ the economy, deciding to go with the devil they did know versus the devil they didn’t, opting for the President, who at least promised to attempt to retain some entitlement programmes and rein in some of the more obvious corporate excesses that contributed to the government’s funding crisis. The Obamacare health insurance reform was also a powerful motivator in the election, with the electorate claiming a 60-40 split on wanting to repeal it by electing Romney into office versus supporting it and the President along with it.

What’s unclear is what Obama can bring to residents of the US struggling with economic and social inequality in the next four years. While the United States has enjoyed some important social and economic advances under his watch in the last four years, it’s also experienced some setbacks, like a rising deportation rate, an increasing wealth gap, growing numbers of people living in poverty, and increasing food insecurity. Some of these issues are the result of the economic mess the President inherited from his predecessor, but some of them were also the result of his domestic policy, which was not always on point with the interests of residents of the US.

While both Obama and Romney made a great deal of noise about ‘the middle class’ during the election, it was difficult to determine what the benchmark for ‘middle class’ was; much like ‘small business,’ the term became a codeword for a vision of US values that isn’t really alive anymore. The middle class has largely vanished, as have the truly small businesses which the US once claimed were its backbone. Whatever dream the candidates were trying to evoke may have resonated with voters clinging to middle class aspirations, but for more world-weary voters and veterans of austerity in US states like California, these promises of a healthier middle class rang hollow and deeply suspicious.

Under Obama, the war on unions and public workers has escalated, a reflection of intense pressure from the right, which took advantage of the nation’s economic struggles to attempt to scapegoat those fighting for worker’s rights and the welfare of residents. The right’s war on entitlement programmes like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and more also dovetailed neatly into this interest; notable that in all these cases, ‘the enemy’ was cast as shiftless and lazy, disinterested in working like ‘real Americans.’ This coincides with historic bootstrapping rhetoric used in the United States to position structural inequality as an individualistic problem that can only be solved by personal action, rather than something that must be addressed by the government and the nation as a whole.

Did the President do enough to combat this? And will he, over the course of the next four years, address the serious structural inequalities in the United States and pay particular attention to their economic roots? One reason he struggled so much over the last four years was because of the obstructionism from Congress, which made it extremely difficult to propose and pass progressive legislation, and forced a number of compromises on key issues, including the President’s much-vaunted health insurance reform.

With Republicans continuing to control the House while Democrats hold the Senate, it’s likely the President will continue to face such tactics in the coming years, unless the Democrats can retake the House in the midterm elections in 2014. The alternative is less coddling from the President and more aggressive tactics, now that he longer needs to worry about appeasing political interests to win a second term. If the President has the will and the determination paired with the experience of four years in the Executive Branch, it’s possible he could push through meaningful reforms in the United States that might lead to lasting change.

It’s doubtful he’ll do so, however, without pressure from the electorate. Reelecting the President was an important first step, but it was far from the last one, and it’s not yet time to declare victory; voters may be relieved that their worst case scenario didn’t come to pass, but this is far from over. Without accountability and support, the President’s second term may ultimately be a failure not just on economic issues, but also other key domestic and foreign policy topics: the President needs to address immigration; reconsider his stance on the use of drones and invasive surveillance tactics; tackle climate change and other environmental issues; and address the terrifying rise of increasingly extreme right-wing politics in the US, for example.

Economic austerity plays into all of these issues, as a tool of social control, fear, and dominance. Obama’s second term represents an opportunity to lead the US out of austerity and into a new social model. Whether he takes that opportunity is not just up to him, but to the country as a whole, as well as Congress, where the stakes are especially high, as the beneficiaries of austerity are those funding the elections that put Congresspeople and Senators in office.

The United States, and the rest of the world, has a rough four years to look forward to. We can hope the new President will commit to serving all the people of the US, and that he will take Congress in hand to compel it to do the same. If he doesn’t, the results could turn quite ugly.