Yet in this very sameness, it was not hard to discern that the country was now a different place. If, as both candidates acknowledged, America was set on a path of fundamental transformation—with a form of nationalized medical care and a dramatically higher level of government involvement in society—then the simple act of keeping the status quo was one of the most important “decisions” in American history. The 2012 election served to consolidate what Barack Obama had already set in motion four years earlier, even if his campaign, for tactical reasons, did not always emphasize this fact.
Not so the Republicans, who promised to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and to begin to reduce government involvement in the economy and society to pre-2008 levels. Their failure to win the presidency spells defeat. By not losing, Obama can now safeguard the measures passed during his first term. Future disputes will have to deal with the new order’s consequences, but the order itself will not be wholly undone. The politics of America will resemble more the “blue” model of California and Illinois, which focus on coping with the added demands of a larger government, then the “red” model of Indiana or Ohio, which have sought to hold the line or scale back what government is asked to do.
Yet when it comes to enacting a governing program, the 2012 election was hardly favorable to President Obama. He won no mandate for a new major agenda—indeed, he hardly bothered to ask for one, except for raising taxes on the wealthy. The aim of his campaign was to retain the keys to the presidential office, at virtually any cost. He succeeded by hanging on. Obama made history in 2012 almost as much as he did in 2008. For the first time, an incumbent won re-election to a second term while receiving a smaller share of the vote than in his first term. In 2008, he had received 53% of the vote; in 2012 it was 50.6%. All other victorious incumbents—most recently Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—gained strength, Obama lost it. This singularly unimpressive result was obscured on election eve by his singularly impressive victory in every state in which the two candidates had actually engaged: Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Watching these states fall one by one on election eve was like witnessing a juggernaut.