In the immediate aftermath of the election, many pundits began shaping a new political narrative: that these next four years will be the ones in which Barack Obama cements his presidential legacy. Several commentators and columnists have speculated on what we will remember most about Obama when his presidency ends – his election as the first African-American president in our nation’s history, the Affordable Healthcare Act, the Osama Bin Laden raid, or something that is yet to come during his second term. All of these ideas have merit, but I would suggest that Obama’s true legacy may be something else entirely.
Over the past 48 hours, a lot of the post-game chatter has been concerned with the way that minorities shaped this election. It has been pointed out, repeatedly and with great emphasis, that the vote turnout by the Latino and African-American communities was the key to President Obama’s re-election. According to those who worked with the Romney campaign, this was a steam train that they didn’t see coming down the track. In an article on the Politico website today, there was a quote that I found sort of astonishing:
“We didn’t think they’d turn out more of their base vote than they did in 2008, but they smoked us,” said one Romney operative. “It’s unbelievable that that they turned out more from the African-American community than in 2008. Somehow they got ‘em to vote.”
To begin with, the tone of this comment is more than a little bit condescending to me. “Somehow they got ’em to vote”? What does that mean? It’s like someone watching trained animals at the circus, and wondering aloud, “Gee, I wonder how they managed to get that bear to ride a bicycle?” It just sounds a bit racist to me, as if this adviser was astounded that African-Americans would be willing and able to manage a trip to the voting booth during one of the most important elections in a generation.
Then there’s the utter cluelessness of such a statement – the fact that Romney’s campaign never factored in a healthy segment of the African-American vote just floors me. To not be prepared for the possibility that Obama could attract an equal (or greater) number of this demographic in 2012, as compared to 2008, is political malpractice of the highest order. But as they discovered, this group was out in full force this year, comprising 13% of the total votes cast, with 93% of black voters choosing Obama.
The Latino vote was also an enormous factor in Obama’s victory on Tuesday. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the Latino vote accounted for 10% of the overall electorate on Tuesday, and the divide in support was enormous, with Obama capturing 71% of this demographic, and Romney earning the support of only 27%.
Since the results came in, the focus on non-white voters has been intense, particularly among the GOP establishment. Countless articles and TV panels are discussing the need for the Republican party to begin some urgently-needed outreach to the members of the minority communities they had previously overlooked for decades. Many are worried that the scramble for new minority voters will result in a lot of lip service, but no real action.
While they supported him in droves, these same voters are having similar worries about President Obama. Latino voters feel that there was not enough accomplished on their behalf during Obama’s first four years, and they are already becoming vocal about their expectations for ramped up results this time around. Similarly, the African-American community – while more satisfied overall with Obama’s first term performance – still has concerns about the widening income gap, increased poverty, and the state of public education.
But let’s reflect on something for a minute here. Think back to a pre-Obama political world, if you can. Prior to the 2008 election, do you ever remember the press making a big stink about minorities’ issues during an election year? Today, if you look, I’d bet that you can find dozens of articles about “what Latinos want” and “what black voters want”. I don’t think those types of articles were so numerous in the mainstream media before 2008. And that’s simply because Obama became the Democratic candidate for president that year.
Once he did, all of a sudden, Latino voters mattered. African-American voters mattered. Ever since then, they have mattered, and after the results on Tuesday, they have never been more crucial to politicians in the history of the United States. This is not a situation that will be fading away anytime soon, either. Demographic trends have clearly demonstrated that minority groups are becoming the majority in America. Any politician who wants to have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting elected needs to understand the significance of the minority vote, effective immediately.
To me, this is the real legacy that Barack Obama has forged as our first African-American president. Yes, he broke a long-standing racial barrier in our government by being elected, but more important will be the way that barriers will have to start breaking down between huge segments of the American population, and those who are elected to represent them. Because, for the first time since the height of the Civil Rights era in the 50’s and 60’s, politicians will need to pay some serious attention to those communities they have generally ignored. Obama’s presidency has given some political clout to many people and groups who haven’t usually had any. Now, when there are discussions of immigration reform, or of economic and social inequalities, those discussions will be more widely heard, and more widely understood to be important. Too many Americans must deal with these issues to marginalize them from here on in. The problems of the minority communities are becoming the problems that affect society as a whole, and they must be addressed by those who wish to hold office.
Another facet of this legacy is the simple fact that the Latino and African-American communities are more politically engaged now than they were before Obama entered the scene. It’s not just that politicians have realized how important these voters are – many of these folks are realizing for the first time how important their votes are as well. Their feelings of disengagement and apathy toward the political process have lessened a great deal, which is incredibly beneficial for the members of minority groups. Their participation is necessary for America to be truly represented, and to see how that participation has increased is a great thing for the democratic process. Hopefully it will continue, even after Obama. It’s just as important to come out and make your voice heard when it’s a couple of white dudes running as it is when a candidate of color is running.
America is changing, make no mistake. it’s about time that people are finally waking up to that reality. We need all groups coming to the table, all ideas discussed, all concerns heard. We need both the politicians and the voters to recognize how much of an effect they have on one another, and how all their decisions and actions are inter-related. We need to see more policies that address issues faced by the African-American and Latino communities, and we need to see those same communities stepping up to advocate and vote for those types of policies. If that sort of thing can happen as a result of this election, and if it can continue after Barack Obama ends his second term, then his legacy will be a stronger, healthier democratic process that ultimately benefits all Americans.