New Year in November (Reprise)
Four years ago, I wrote an article titled New Year in November about Barack Obama’s historic victory. That’s what it felt like – a new beginning, a rebirth – even to a blogger half the world away. Four years flew by in the blink of an eye and the president was up for re-election this month.
This time I wanted to be there – in America, in the thick of things. I planned my annual home leave in the second week of November and arrived in New York just days after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. Expecting the vote count to last all night, I stocked up on junk food in my hotel room in Midtown Manhattan. I had my laptop showing the electoral map and a calculator to tally the votes. I toggled back-and-forth between CNN and Fox News on the flat-screen TV while posting the latest election results on Facebook. I was a ready for a showdown.
I’m not an American citizen and so I can’t actually vote. Even if I were, my vote wouldn’t have mattered much because New York is what they call a “Blue State,” where residents predominantly vote for the Democratic Party. Under the winner-take-all electoral college system, all of the state’s 29 electoral votes would have gone to Obama regardless which way I would have voted.
Since the Bush era, America has become more polarized and adversarial than ever. The political divide between the liberals (“Blue States”) and the conservatives (“Red States”) is so wide that there are even talks of secession. Either side refuses to compromise or acknowledge that their opponents can sometimes be right.
This extreme case of partisanship sounds eerily familiar. Here in Hong Kong, the standoff between political movements like People Power (人民力量) and Scholarism (學民思潮) on the one hand, and C.Y. Leung’s government and the pro-Beijing camp on the other hand, turns every policy issue into a binary proposition: my way or the high way. I have always been a staunch liberal and a fervent supporter of the anti-government movement in Hong Kong. These days, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant of dissent and opposing viewpoints. I suppose I am every bit as guilty of partisanship as the political opponents I criticize.
At around 8:15PM on Election Night, after I had barely finished my first Kit Kat bar, NBC News declared Obama the projected winner of Ohio. The 18 electoral votes from the swing state were enough for the president to defeat his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Just like that, the show was over: Obama had won a second term. I was relieved. For a long time I had been genuinely worried that Obama would lose the race. After all, no U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected with the national unemployment rate above 7%. And the stakes were so much higher this time around. It would have been far worse for Obama to lose the re-election in 2012 than to lose the first election in 2008. In American politics, there is no bigger kick-in-the-teeth than a one-term presidency. Just ask Jimmy Carter and George Bush Senior.
If Obama had lost to John McCain four years ago, we would have shrugged it off and told ourselves that America wasn’t ready for a black president. But kicking Obama out of the White House after a single term would have been a whole other matter. It would have been tantamount to telling the world that America is ready for a black president but just that the black guy can’t handle the job. It would have made the country look narrow-minded and small. In a way I was as much rooting for America as I was for Obama.
But Obama didn’t really win the election – it was Romney who lost it. Post-mortems are heavily underway, as the Republican Party scrambles to find out what went wrong. Pundits and political analysts are blanketing the airwaves with their own explanations.
To me, the reason for Romney’s loss is as plain as day: the Tea Party movement. The weak American economy has fueled the rise of radical conservatism, which in turn has intimidated moderate Republicans into taking more extreme social and political positions. While the GOP speaks of fiscal responsibility and job creation, it seems far more interested in rolling back women’s rights and civil liberties. In the process, the Republicans have alienated women, blacks, Hispanics and other minority voters.
The radicalization of the Republican Party troubles many Americans and baffles the rest of the world. Outside the U.S., we wonder how a country progressive enough to elect a black president can allow a bunch of red-neck whack jobs to hijack its national agenda. No wonder tourism in America is down and visitors steer clear of the Red States.
With Obama back on the job, all eyes are now on the next election. If my predictions are right, 2016 will see a run-off between Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Clinton has already stepped down as secretary of state to presumably make time for her White House bid. Christie, on the other hand, has been thrust to the national forefront after scoring major political points for his handling of Hurricane Sandy. To increase his odds against the most admired woman in America, the heavy-set WASPy governor will need to lose 100 pounds and learn a little Spanish. I’ve always wondered why America, a country that revels in political showmanship and invented reality television, doesn’t have a first lady debate. It’s about time we changed that, starting with Campaign 2016. Imagine the fireworks when Bill Clinton takes on little known Mary Christie on foreign policy in front of tens of millions of viewers. I can’t think of a better prime-time entertainment.
To those who say that Obama has lost his mojo after a lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, look no further than the way he delivered his victory speech on Election Night. He still has plenty of fire in his belly. And to those who say that Western democracy is doomed because of wasteful campaign spending and paralyzing partisanship, look no further than what Obama said in his victory speech. He offered a cogent rebuttal.
“That’s why we do this,” he explained, “[because] people in distant nations are risking their lives just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”
Obama was talking about us. He was talking about the 1.3 billion Chinese who, just two days ago, were told the names of their new leaders after the National Congress convened behind closed doors. In his first public speech as the new paramount leader, Xi Jinping (習近平) spoke of reform and a better life for the poor. That’s all very kind of Xi, except that not one of us had voted for him.