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The Day After

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For Barack Obama, the day after the election looks more or less the same as it did the day before. A Democratic president enjoys a narrow majority in the Senate and faces solid Republican control of the House of Representatives. What could be running through his mind? Just how he managed to salvage his campaign after the disastrous performance in the first debate? Or maybe what he would have done had he lost?

My guess is that he is wondering how he is going to govern and make good on the promise of a better future. After all, from now on it's all about his legacy. And although the president came out on top last night, the mountain in front of him remains as high and the path to the summit as steep as it was just a few days ago.

As I've said in the past, this election was all about the fears of an American middle class facing an uncertain future. The candidates presented two competing visions for that future, each drawing on different strands of American political culture. By proposing tax cuts and a reduction in the size of government, Mitt Romney appealed to a long tradition of American individual liberty, self-reliance and freedom from the shackles of the nanny-state. Free Americans from over-regulation and unnecessary taxation and they will take care of the future on their own, thank you.

President Obama drew on a different, but equally American, current and championed the role of the state in American society. Individual liberty is indeed key to the American experience, but Obama rejected the proposition that it is always guaranteed by a small and unobtrusive state. Quite the contrary: we need the state to provide an equal playing field so that everyone, regardless of background, can exercise their liberties. And while the Republicans feared the president might conjure up an 'October Surprise' to rescue a flailing campaign, it was Mother Nature herself who threw him a lifeline. Hurricane Sandy became a metaphor and provided the president a perfect opportunity to demonstrate what the federal government can do for individuals in need.

In the end, Americans voted for the security promised by the welfare state. But on the day after the election, nobody knows how we're going to pay for it. Asking the wealthiest Americans to pick up more of the bill proved popular with the middle class, but if we are going to make the investments in infrastructure, education and clean energy that are necessary to restore American competitiveness in a global economy, the middle class is going to have to share the burden. The domestic challenge for the next four years? Reassuring the middle class about its future while simultaneously asking it do to with less. It's a task the president hasn't even begun to confront.

Of course in order to move a progressive agenda forward the president will need to forge coalitions in a divided Congress. So perhaps the most important question the president is asking the day after his reelection is what lessons the Republicans will draw from Governor Romney's defeat. At least two narratives are already in play. The first suggests Romney lost because he made too many concessions to far right elements in the Republican Party. Whether on issues of health care for senior citizens ("Turn Medicare into a voucher program!"), government assistance to distressed industries ("Let Detroit go bankrupt!"), or abortion ("The Supreme Court should overturn Roe-v-Wade!") Romney was forced to adopt extreme positions during the Republican primaries and as a result lost the median voter. The competing narrative suggests that Romney's post-nomination race to the middle left him looking too much like the president. Why vote for Obama light when you can have the real thing?

The biggest challenge confronting the Republicans is that America itself looks increasingly like the president. The coalition that returned Barack Obama to the White House is a majority of minorities. Until and unless the Republican Party can appeal to people who look quite different from Mitt Romney, their future prospects for winning the presidency look bleak indeed.