Obama was re-elected President of the USA with a convincing victory. He won the electoral college by 332 votes to Mitt Romney’s 206. He carried all the states that he won four years ago except Indiana and North Carolina. This victory is surprising to many observers as it was achieved against a background of high unemployment, pessimism and deep division in the country on economic as well as racial grounds. Healthcare reform, his main achievement, has turned out to be deeply unpopular.
As a non-American it would be presumptuous for me to reflect what the victory means for US citizens on both sides of the Blue and Red divide. Instead, I would like to offer an outsider’s perspective on what it means for me.
First, I reviewed a few publications – the Economist magazine, International Herald Tribune, China Daily – to find out what some other outsiders have to say.
I learnt from commentators that Europe is generally pleased with the outcome. In fact they are relieved that they will continue to deal with a known quantity and not have to go through time-wasting transition with a new administration across the Atlantic. This relief is echoed in China, which itself is also going through a transition in political leadership. Obama’s stance on China is already well known and no major surprises are likely in the immediate future. This should help to make the Beijing’s leadership transition relatively smooth in respect of the critical Sino-US relationship. Obama’s re-election also assuaged concerns of the international business community, staking on a stable and predictable Sino-US relationship.
But the concerns of the Europeans and Chinese did not influence the outcome. Americans voted on the basis on their own concerns and preferences.
Obama’s edge came from women, the young, and the minorities. He got 55% of the vote of women (who make up 53% of the electorate) and 60% of the under 30. Minorities voted resoundingly for Obama. He got 93% of black voters, 75% of gay voters, and 71% of Asians and Hispanics (more than 10% of the population). Interestingly, Obama also got 13% more votes than Romney from those with a post-graduate degree.
Why did people vote for Obama?
Despite its democratic credentials, USA has a strong class system. In a highly simplistic scheme, top of the pyramid are the elite, the “patrician class” that controls a disproportionate amount of political power, influence and financial resources. Members of the patrician class used to be predominantly Male, White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (sometimes known as WASP) but this got diluted over the past several decades. Men from other religions and ethnic groups began to join the patrician class – quite often they had to fight for that right. John Kennedy’s Catholicism was as big an issue when he ran for President in 1960s as Obama’s skin color in 2008. Today, the patrician class has further expanded its membership to include the wealthy and women.
Below the patricians in the pyramid are the plebeians. They are members of the middle class and the poor and they make up the bulk of the pyramid. Those who rise through the rank, especially through business success and wealth, may be accepted into the patrician class.
In my view, Romney represents the patrician class and Obama the plebeians. While Obama got the votes of the majority of the states and the people, he won the election because of the votes of the plebeians. This is not because they all approved of Obama’s performance in the past four years, nor did they act in unison. On the contrary, the plebeians are segmented into different and not coherent interest groups, and many were not happy with his performance. According to exit polls, 51% of voters believed that Romney, with his experience in the patrician class, was better positioned to address the economic issues facing the country. Yet Obama won.
Obama cares for ordinary people
I would suggest that there is a wind of change, an awakening towards the idea that the plebeians, the ordinary people, have the power and they matter. We have seen this in the dramatic events of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and we are seeing it now in Middle America. In a telling exit poll, two out of 10 voters wanted a president who “cares about people like me”. A whopping 81% of them voted for Obama. A highly placed American friend of mine who voted for Obama said: that is not new; it is the ideal of our republic.