President Obama's re-election may augur some dramatic changes in the shape of the American political map. Meanwhile, though, he will have to govern in the face of a bitterly divided Congress. There is much to glean from election results. Here are three important takeaways.
Demographic change: America is changing. We are becoming a more diverse and multi-hued society. Consequently, the Democrats' demographic firewall is becoming increasingly daunting, at least in presidential election years.
Whites still make up somewhere close to three-quarters of the electorate, but trying to cobble together a winning coalition based primarily on white voters who skew older is becoming a more difficult task. Some Republicans are aware of the problem. On the eve of Mitt Romney's defeat last week, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said: "If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn't conservative enough I'm going to go nuts ... We're not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we're not being hard-ass enough." As the Republican debacle unfolded on election night, Bill O'Reilly told his viewers on Fox, "It's not a traditional America anymore ... the white establishment is now a minority."
The worm turns in the culture wars: In 2004, Republicans put anti-gay marriage measures on the ballot in 11 states and won them all. That year, after Bush's re-election, all the talk focused on the Republicans' organizational edge and their massive advantage among so-called values voters—religious conservatives whom the GOP had successfully mobilized to confront secular liberalism.
Many wondered whether Karl Rove's dream of a "permanent Republican majority" was coming to fruition and whether, to stay competitive, Democrats would have to transform their own image that they were culturally out of touch.
Fast-forward eight years, and that landscape appears to have changed markedly. For the first time ever, last Tuesday delivered outright victories at the ballot box for gay marriage in Maryland and Maine, with a similar measure leading in Washington state as of this writing. Additionally, Minnesota rejected the kind of marriage amendment North Carolinians overwhelmingly approved in May. Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay senator-elect.
When the Senate reconvenes in January, it will include a record 20 women, 16 of whom are Democrats, reflecting an ever-widening gender gap between the parties. Another historical first: White men will not comprise a majority of the House Democratic caucus.
To be sure, the country remains deeply divided on cultural issues. More than 30 states have approved gay marriage bans, and profound disagreements persist on religion, guns and abortion. But Democrats ran unapologetically on cultural issues this year, including women's reproductive rights and marriage equality, an issue that had them running scared just a few years ago.
Divided government is ba-ack: Nationally, the night belonged to Democrats. They retained the presidency and, contrary to prevailing political wisdom at the beginning of the year, not only returned their Senate majority but expanded it, now with a likely 55-45 edge.
However, though Democrats gained a few seats in the House, Republicans successfully defended their majority. And while the Democratic caucus in the Senate appears to have become more liberal, the House Republican caucus has certainly become more conservative, with tea party candidates doing very well across the country.
Before President Obama's second term even begins, the fiscal cliff looms. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire Dec. 31, when automatic spending reductions are scheduled to kick in. The combination, it is widely feared, could take a bite out of the sluggish recovery. Prior Republican intransigence on any kind of tax increase bodes poorly for a deal, despite some conciliatory talk from Speaker John Boehner on election night.
Remember that Boehner said in 2011—during the height of the debt-ceiling standoff—that Obama had given him 98 percent of what he wanted. That wasn't good enough for House Republicans, who killed the deal, resulting in the makeshift agreement that produced the impending situation. While Obama and Democrats hold most of the cards now—if nothing happens, the Bush tax cuts disappear by themselves and significant cuts in Pentagon spending start to bite—long-term conflicts over taxing and spending will remain.
Apart from the deficit conundrum, Obama's victory more or less ensures the nearly full implementation of his signature health care law. But the Supreme Court decision in June, which upheld the Affordable Care Act but allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, likely means that several states will reject that expansion. Florida's Rick Scott and Texas' Rick Perry are two of the most prominent governors to have said they will do so (and one has to wonder whether Gov. McCrory will follow suit in North Carolina).
The other major piece of Obamacare involves the state exchanges, in which millions of individuals not otherwise covered will be able to purchase subsidized insurance. Though Obamacare mandates certain minimum requirements in all new health insurance, states will have leeway to determine what, above those minimum standards, health insurance will require. Expect there to be considerable variation among states in that regard and extraordinary complication and attempted obstruction in setting up those exchanges.
Withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014, represents another massive undertaking. And scientists agree that the devastating effects of Super Storm Sandy were exacerbated by changes in the climate brought about by CO2 emissions. Again an obstructionist majority in the House, mostly comprising climate deniers or skeptics, will make serious action unlikely. All of these issues, plus immigration reform and more, will have to be sorted out in the face of what appears to be an impossibly divided Congress.
So while Obama and his supporters celebrate his surprisingly comfortable win last Tuesday night and revel in the possibility of an increasingly favorable political landscape, the reality of governing amid undiminished acrimony will soon rear its head. Stay tuned.