2012 Person of the Year: Barack Obama, the President

The campaign wasn’t pretty, and the economy worse. but he reasserted himself as a potent architect for a changing America

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Nadav Kander for TIME
Nadav Kander for TIME

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.”

(Interview with ObamaSetting the Stage for a Second Term)

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?

Bjarne Jonasson for TIME

The Geek Squad: from left: Harper Reed, the chief technology officer, tweeted “My boss is awesome” after Obama won; Dan Wagner, the chief analytics officer, oversaw a team of number crunchers five times the size of the 2008 group; Dylan Richard engineered much of the software behind the campaign; Andrew Claster used analytics to develop new ways of targeting and predicting voter behavior

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.

(PHOTOSLast Days on the Road with Obama by Brooks Kraft)

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.”

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