Twenty-seven years after driving from New York City to Chicago in a $2,000 Honda Civic for a job that probably wouldn’t amount to much, Barack Obama, in better shape but with grayer hair, stood in the presidential suite on the top floor of the Fairmont Millennium Park hotel as flat screens announced his re-election as President of the United States.
The networks called Ohio earlier than predicted, so his aides had to hightail it down the hall to join his family and friends. They encountered a room of high fives and fist pumps, hugs and relief.
The final days of any campaign can alter the psyches of even the most experienced political pros. At some point, there is nothing to do but wait. Members of Obama’s team responded in the only rational way available to them — by acting irrationally. They turned neckties into magic charms and facial hair into a talisman and compulsively repeated past behaviors so as not to jinx what seemed to be working. In Boca Raton, Fla., before the last debate, they dispatched advance staff to find a greasy-spoon diner because they had eaten at a similar joint before the second debate, on New York’s Long Island. They sent senior strategist David Axelrod a photograph of the tie he had to find to wear on election night: the same one he wore in 2008. Several staffers on Air Force One stopped shaving, like big-league hitters in the playoffs. Even the President succumbed, playing basketball on Election Day at the same court he played on before winning in 2008.
But now it was done, and reason had returned. Ever since the campaign computers started raising the odds of victory from near even to something like surefire, Obama had been thinking a lot about what it meant to win without the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of that first national campaign. The Obama effect was not ephemeral anymore, no longer reducible to what had once been mocked as “that hopey-changey stuff.” It could be measured — in wars stopped and started; industries saved, restructured or reregulated; tax cuts extended; debt levels inflated; terrorists killed; the health-insurance system reimagined; and gay service members who could walk in uniform with their partners. It could be seen in the new faces who waited hours to vote and in the new ways campaigns are run. America debated and decided this year: history would not record Obama’s presidency as a fluke.
So after his staff arrived, he left his family in the main room of the suite and stepped out to talk with his three top advisers, Axelrod, political strategist David Plouffe and Jim Messina, his campaign manager. He wanted to tell them what this victory meant, because it was very different the second time. “This one’s more satisfying than ’08,” he said. “It wasn’t just about what I was going to do as President. It’s what I’ve done.” In the end, the outcome would not even be very close, and this realization was sinking in, unleashing something, dropping a shield he had been carrying for a long time. Over three days in November, the man known for his preternatural cool won re-election and cried twice in public. And then, trying to find meaning in a tragedy in Connecticut, he did it again, all but breaking down in the White House Briefing Room.
In mid-December, as Obama settles into one of the Oval Office’s reupholstered chairs — brown leather instead of Bush’s blue and gold candy stripes — the validation of Election Day still hovers around him, suggesting that his second four years in office may turn out to be quite different from his first. Beyond the Oval Office, overwhelming challenges remain: deadlocked fiscal-cliff talks; a Federal Reserve that predicts years of high unemployment; and more unrest in places like Athens, Cairo and Damascus. But the President seems unbound and gives inklings of an ambition he has kept in check ever since he arrived at the White House to find a nation in crisis. He leans back, tea at his side, legs crossed, to explain what he thinks just happened. “It was easy to think that maybe 2008 was the anomaly,” he says. “And I think 2012 was an indication that, no, this is not an anomaly. We’ve gone through a very difficult time. The American people have rightly been frustrated at the pace of change, and the economy is still struggling, and this President we elected is imperfect. And yet despite all that, this is who we want to be.” He smiles. “That’s a good thing.”
Two years ago, Republicans liked to say that the only hard thing Obama ever did right was beating Hillary Clinton in the primary, and in electoral terms, there was some truth to that. In 2012 the GOP hoped to cast him as an inspiring guy who was not up to the job. But now we know the difference between the wish and the thing, the hype and the man in the office. He stands somewhat shorter, having won 4 million fewer votes and two fewer states than in 2008. But his 5 million-vote margin of victory out of 129 million ballots cast shocked experts in both parties, and it probably would have been higher had so much of New York and New Jersey not stayed home after Hurricane Sandy. He won many of the toughest battlegrounds walking away: Virginia by 4 points, Colorado by 5 and the lily white states of Iowa and New Hampshire by 6. He untied Ohio’s knotty heartland politics, picked the Republican lock on Florida Cubans and won Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wis. (Those last two data points especially caught the President’s interest.) He will take the oath on Jan. 20 as the first Democrat in more than 75 years to get a majority of the popular vote twice. Only five other Presidents have done that in all of U.S. history.
There are many reasons for this, but the biggest by far are the nation’s changing demographics and Obama’s unique ability to capitalize on them. When his name is on the ballot, the next America — a younger, more diverse America — turns out at the polls. In 2008, blacks voted at the same rate as whites for the first time in history, and Latinos broke turnout records. The early numbers suggest that both groups did it again in 2012, even in nonbattleground states, where the Obama forces were far less organized. When minorities vote, that means young people do too, because the next America is far more diverse than the last. And when all that happens, Obama wins. He got 71% of Latinos, 93% of blacks, 73% of Asians and 60% of those under 30.
That last number is the one Obama revels in most. When he talks about the campaign, he likes to think about the generational shift the country is going through on topics like gay marriage — an issue on which he lagged, only to reverse himself last spring. He connects it to the optimism he felt as a young man, the same thing he always talks about with staff in the limo or on the plane after visits with campaign volunteers. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” reads one of the quotes stitched into his new Oval Office rug — an old abolitionist cry that Martin Luther King Jr. repurposed while marching on Selma, Ala. Obama believes in that, and he believes he is more than just a bit player in the transition. “I do think that my eight years as President, reflecting those values and giving voice to those values, help to validate or solidify that transformation,” he says, “and I think that’s a good thing for the country.”
Few experts predicted two years ago that Obama would be busy writing his second Inaugural Address. Pre-election polling showed depressed enthusiasm among young people and Latinos, for example, amid soaring interest among white evangelicals and the elderly. But the poll questions did not account for Obama’s secret weapon: the people who don’t much care for politics. A sizable chunk of the President’s most ardent backers don’t admire either party yet think Obama is somehow above it all, immune to all the horse trading and favor mongering that politics entails. These voters aren’t political in the cable-TV sense of the word. But in 2012, they stuck by Obama. In the last month of the Obama campaign’s voter registration, 70% of those signed up were women, minorities or people under 30.
The President feels a responsibility to advance the values he sees reflected in the changing electorate. Of the nearly 66 million people who pulled the lever for him, Obama says, “The choice that they made was less about me and more about them, more about who they saw themselves to be.” It’s a lovely sentiment for a winner, but even if Obama’s right, the question now is, Who exactly do they want to be? And can Barack Obama take them there?
The election that Obama won, as he has said repeatedly, was in the end a choice, not a referendum. He proved to be a better option than Mitt Romney, who was an imperfect candidate by most measures. On the issues, Obama did not fare quite as well. While 51% of voters in exit polls in 2008 said they wanted the government to do more, only 43% said so in 2012, and Obamacare still polls badly.
But Obama doesn’t see his legacy in terms of an ideological imprint, like Ronald Reagan’s claim that “government is the problem” or Bill Clinton’s admonition that the “era of Big Government is over.” He says he just wants smarter government and a set of results that he can claim as he leaves office in early 2017: “That we had steered this ship of state so that we once again had an economy that worked for everybody, that we had laid the foundation for broad-based prosperity and that internationally we had created the framework for continued American leadership in the world throughout the 21st century.” Recent history and current headlines suggest he will fall short of achieving all those goals. But if he succeeds, it wouldn’t be the first time this leader beat expectations.
Since the moment Obama arrived on the national scene in 2004, the very idea of leadership has been under assault. Many of the old institutions that once anchored the American Dream have been bled of public confidence. Banks, Big Business, the news media and Congress all polled at or near record lows during his first term. Obama himself was the target of uncommon vitriol, but he has somehow managed to keep the public’s faith.
To understand how he kept his job, the best place to start is where he did. In early 2011, David Simas, a former registrar of deeds in Taunton, Mass., who had become a senior White House aide, switched on what might be called one of the largest listening posts in U.S. history. For months on end, two or three nights a week, Simas and his team secretly gathered voters in rented rooms across the swing states, eight at a time, the men separated from the women. The Obamans poked at their guinea pigs’ animal spirits, asked for confessions and played word-association games. (Among swing voters, Democrat often elicited Barack Obama, and Republican would yield words like old and backward.) Live feeds of the focus groups were shown on computer screens at campaign headquarters in Chicago. The first discovery Simas made held the keys to the kingdom. “Here is the best thing,” he said of Obama when he went back to home base. “People trust him.”
In an age of lost authority, Obama had managed to maintain his. In group after group, the voters told the researchers they believed the President was honest, lived an admirable personal life and was trying to do the right thing. “Here’s what I heard for 18 months,” Simas says. “‘I trust his values. I think he walked into the worst situation of any President in 50 years. And you know what? I am disappointed that things haven’t turned around.’ But there was always that feeling of ‘I am willing to give this guy a second shot.’”
In different rooms, behind different one-way mirrors, Republicans made the same discovery. “There was almost nothing that would stick to this guy, because they just liked him personally,” Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s deputy campaign manager, said after the election. Most of those who had voted for Obama in 2008 were still proud of that vote and did not see the President as partisan or ideological. When Republicans channeled their party’s many furies, attacking Obama as an extremist, it backfired among swing-state voters. “The kind of traditional negative campaign that the Obama campaign did was not available to our side,” explained Steven Law, who oversaw more than $100 million in anti-Obama advertising for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.
So even before the first ad ran, Obama had an edge and a way of framing the race. While Romney tried to focus on Obama’s weak economic record, Obama made his race about confidence. The most important poll question in Chicago was, Which candidate is looking out for voters like you? “What we saw these undecided voters doing for literally a year,” Simas says, “looking at two very different people outside fundamental message, tactics and strategy, is, they were making a very trust-based assessment between Obama and Romney.”
This became the through line of the brutal and at times unfair Obama attacks on Romney — the cracks about car elevators, the specious mention of his potentially felonious Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the false claim that he supported an abortion ban without a rape exception, the endless harping on a Swiss bank account once held in his wife’s name. It all spoke to a central message built around trust: One man, despite his failures, had voters like you in mind. The other man, by contrast, knew how to make a lot of money for people you will never meet.
Of course, Romney turned out to be Obama’s biggest ally in that narrative. But back at campaign headquarters, Simas slapped a poster on his office wall that told an even bigger story. It had three lines: two showing the rise of per capita GDP and productivity in the U.S. since 1992 and one flat line showing household income. He opened all his presentations with the same chart. “Above it was just a phrase from a focus group — ‘I’m working harder and falling behind,’” Simas says. “That was the North Star. Everything we did and everything we said was derivative of that sentiment.” The words of the faceless focus-group participant passed from the rented room to the computer screens in Chicago and eventually right into the President’s stump speech. “As long as there are families who are working harder and harder but falling further behind,” Obama told crowds, “our work is not yet done.”
Message is one thing. but in modern presidential politics, it can’t go very far without a machine, and the machine is what really made Obama cry — first at his final rally, in Des Moines, Iowa, and then at his headquarters the day after the election. Appropriately enough for a campaign that redefined the limits of viral politics, the second set of tears became a YouTube sensation, seen some 9 million times in the weeks after the election, more than any other campaign video of the cycle.
You can see him walk to a microphone, looking easy and confident, chewing his gum. He starts telling the story of his first years as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, when he was 25 and trying to find his way, with little success. “It’s not that you guys actually remind me of myself,” he says to the young staff before him. “It’s the fact that you are so much better than I was in so many ways. You’re smarter, and you’re better organized, and you’re more effective … Even before last night’s results, I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle,” he continues, “because what you guys have done means the work that I am doing is important. I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you.” Then he breaks down. Tears well and drop.
Obama didn’t have to do much to build this machine the second time around. The same obsessive staff, who had never really left his circle, returned with the same set of techniques, a mixture of old-school community organizing and high-tech social networking: one-on-one conversations with supporters, repeat telephone calls, staffers focused only on organizing volunteers, registration drives where no presidential campaign had tried registration before. But Obama was also obsessed. On a tour through Iowa in September, his state director, Brad Anderson, told him that the campaign had arranged for an early-vote location at a Latino grocery store. “The President loved that,” says Plouffe, who traveled with him. “The Latino community in Iowa is relatively small, but we were trying to harvest every vote possible.” The President even got to play shop foreman at times, as if he were back in the projects overseeing voter-registration teams. A couple of days before the election, he confronted a salaried staffer at a staging office in Ohio who asked the President for a photo. “You’re a field organizer,” Obama replied reproachfully, citing the well-known rule that staff’s first job is to organize others. “You gotta be looking out for your volunteers.”
In its second incarnation, the Obama campaign began to blur and then obliterate the line between politics and daily life for millions of Americans. The President held off-the-record calls with FM disc jockeys in black and Hispanic communities. Aides signed up Latinos at amateur soccer leagues, circulated clipboards in bars and nightclubs and canvassed blockbuster-movie-premiere lines for new voters. “In Chapel Hill for a wedding,” White House aide Tommy Vietor e-mailed Plouffe in mid-September from North Carolina. “Multiple people with Obama clipboards have tried to register me to vote in the 5 hours I’ve been here.” Later that night, Vietor read the specials scribbled on a chalkboard at a bar. The Obama was a shot of Jack Daniel’s and a Pabst Blue Ribbon for $7. The Romney was a shot of Johnnie Walker Gold and a bottle of 1995 Altamura cabernet for $870. The message was breaking through.
And so were the new methods devised by a geek squad convened from multinational ad agencies, corporate consultancies and high-tech start-ups. The goals were the same as ever: more money in the bank, more door knocks, more phone calls, more voter registrations and more voters at the polls. But the methods for achieving those ends in 2012 bordered on the revolutionary. A squad of dozens of data crunchers created algorithms for predicting the likelihood that someone would respond to specific types of requests to accomplish each of those goals. Vast quantities of information were collected and then employed to predict just which television shows various target voters in certain cities were watching at just what time of day — the better to decide where to place TV ads. Facebook, which was an afterthought in 2008, became the new electronic telephone call, employed to persuade more than 600,000 Obama supporters to reach out to 5 million swing-state friends online with targeted messages in the days before the election. One woman in central Ohio who was living with her young voting-age daughter reported that her house got four different visits on the morning of Election Day, each from a different neighbor making sure both women had remembered to vote.
The geek squad also found new ways to make voters turn out their pockets. They refined meet-the-candidate lotteries into an art form, invented a system for texting dollars from a mobile phone that required entering only a single number and experimented with the language of e-mail pitches until they stung. Of his $1 billion campaign-cash haul, Obama was able to raise $690 million online in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008. More than $200 million of that came in donations of $200 or less, a 10% increase over the history-making frenzy of 2008. In a campaign that big super-PAC money was supposed to dominate, Obama’s operation proved that many small efforts were more powerful than a few big ones. No one in either party thinks campaign finance will ever be the same.
How much of this survives for future Democrats when Obama exits the stage? Obama’s advisers are quick to say it won’t be around for others to tap. Too much of the Obama coalition, they say, is about Obama himself. It might reject anyone who tries to take up his mantle in a few years. “This organization is not transferable,” says a senior campaign adviser. “The next nominee on either side is going to have to build their own coalition.” But the Obama effort is going to try to live on. Bob Bauer, the campaign’s attorney, has been working on a plan for a new organization — likely to be incorporated as a nonprofit beyond the reach of the Democratic National Committee — that will be announced in the coming weeks. The idea is to create an outlet for Obama’s supporters, more than 80,000 of whom said after the election that they were willing to run for public office. A similar effort stumbled in 2009, when Obama reined in his grassroots supporters to avoid ruffling feathers in Congress. But the one thing Obama has learned in his first term is that he won’t be able to accomplish much in the second without an active outside game.
The fifth year of any presidency is always a sweet spot, a golden hour between re-election and lame-duck status, when a President has a chance to think more about history than about the tracking polls. And so the President must now decide how high to reach and what to accomplish while he still can. “I’m more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” Obama said at his first press conference after the election. “On the other hand, I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election.”
He began to navigate the issues in the days after the election by scribbling his hopes on a yellow legal pad. Obama has always thought best by writing, and for that reason he struggled to keep a diary during his first term, a task at which he hopes to redouble his efforts over the coming years. “In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are,” he says. “The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.”
But the yellow pad he began to fill after the election was not for himself or his next memoir. Instead, he wanted to work out what he should try to get done in the next four years, beyond his inbox and legislative to-do list for the next nine months. The immediate goals are clear: a major push on immigration reform and a way to lower the medium-term deficit through a combination of raising tax rates, reforming the tax code and finding some temporary truce between the parties on entitlements. He gathered his staffers for a “40,000-foot” view of what was possible.
They soon discovered that the yellow pad included some things spoken of only rarely during the campaign: dealing with the problem of climate change, for instance, emerged as a major thread, despite all the money the campaign had spent in southeastern Ohio praising Obama’s commitment to coal. He spoke of increasing opportunities for early-childhood education and finding new ways to lessen the burden of college costs. The long lines that forced millions to wait for hours to vote led him to talk about a broad sweep of potential electoral reforms, which would likely include a popular push on campaign-finance reform and new legislation to force states to improve ballot access. He also said he wanted to look at the criminal-justice system. “There’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal-justice system, that is involved in nonviolent crimes,” he tells TIME. “I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also, there are millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.”
Prison reform won’t become a top priority of his Administration, but his interest in it signals his determination to expand the boundaries of what a second-term presidency might be. When two states, Washington and Colorado, legalized marijuana for adults in November, Obama decided that federal law-enforcement resources should not be deployed to bust individuals who are complying with state law. “When it comes to drug enforcement, big-time drug dealers, folks who are preying on our kids, those who are engaging in violence — that has to be our focus,” he said.
In the wake of the killings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, Obama asked if the country and its President had done enough in his first term to deal with mass shootings. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no, we’re not doing enough,” he said before promising to “use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement to mental-health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” He had made similar vows before, after other shootings. But this one affected him more. Never had he cast the issue so starkly as a question of moral and political courage. Never before had he so clearly reproached himself for failing to take action.
White House aides draw a distinction between what is possible legislatively and what they can do rhetorically and through public education. It’s not just what Obama gets passed, they muse; it’s the legacy he leaves for the next occupant of the Oval Office. “You recognize you’re not going to arrive with — you’ll never arrive at that promised land, and whatever seeds you plant now may bear fruit many years later,” Obama says. Only time will tell just how he fulfills that vision.
Which is O.K. with the President. In mid-November, White House aides arranged a postelection screening of the new Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, inviting the director and much of the cast, including actors Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the 16th President, and Sally Field, who plays his wife. Obama called the experience of watching the horse trading, corruption and compromise that allowed the passage of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery, “incredibly powerful.” For Axelrod, who attended the screening and who fought alongside the President through the disappointments and triumphs of the first few years, the story echoed the bruising and at times chaotic battle for health care reform, something he mentioned to his boss.
“Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs, and there are compromises,” Obama says of his favorite President. “Anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect.”
Obama says he long ago decided that he should not compare himself to Lincoln. But he nonetheless begins his second term with a better sense of what is possible in his job as well as what is not, something Lincoln struggled with as well. “You do understand that as President of the United States, the amount of power you have is overstated in some ways,” Obama says. “But what you do have the capacity to do is to set a direction.” He has earned the right to set that direction and has learned from experience how to move the country. After four of the most challenging years in the nation’s history, his chance to leave office as a great President who was able to face crises and build a new majority coalition remains within reach.