In 2008, President Obama ensured his place in American history as the first black president.
But by winning re-election, Obama cements that achievement. The nation’s decision to embrace a non-white-male chief executive is now no longer an aberration, a victory in a year (2008) in which arguably everything went right for Obama and wrong for the Republicans.
Now, Obama has won the majority of American votes despite an intense, organized opposition to his leadership, historically high unemployment during his tenure, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads attacking him, and a set of policies that sharply divided the two political parties.
In 2008, Americans elected the idea of Obama and a black president. In 2012, they powerfully affirmed that decision.
If Obama had lost, his defeat would not have been solely (or even principally) because of race, as some voters who backed him in 2008 opted against doing so this year, arguing he had not lived up to the promise of his campaign. But a loss by Obama would have highlighted the racial division that still exists in America (almost 60 percent of whites backed Mitt Romney, while fewer than 10 percent of blacks did). And the president’s reelection will strengthen the voices of those who say America is growing more accepting of its increasing diversity.
Obama now has the chance to become one of the presidents considered great, or least one celebrated by his own political party, as Ronald Reagan is revered among conservatives.
By winning reelection, Obama can also reshape how he is defined in history. He will always be remembered first for breaking the nation’s color barrier at its highest level. But Obama can now seek to broaden his legacy from race to his achievements: the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the health care law, the rescue of the auto companies. In particular, “Obamacare,” which Mitt Romney would have tried to eliminate or gut, now has the chance to become like Social Security or Medicare, a broad-based social program that most Americans support and is essentially impossible to end.
To be sure, nothing is guaranteed. George W. Bush was elected to a second term, but lost much of his political capital and public standing less than a year later because of his lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina, among other things. Obama is hoping Republicans opt to work with him now that he has won reelection, but the GOP may well continue to oppose him. They may view this election less as a referendum on ideas, and more as demonstrating the failure of Mitt Romney, a candidate conservatives have long considered flawed. And while the economy is expected to improve, this too remains uncertain.
Nonetheless, Obama’s win on Tuesday is a powerful statement. With a bi-racial man named Barack Hussein Obama elected president twice, non-white candidates of both parties can never again consider race an ironclad barrier to success. Obama’s strong performance among minorities and women (getting around 80 percent of the non-white vote and the majority of women) could also make the all-white-male presidential ticket a thing of the past, as both parties seek to appeal to an increasingly diverse country.