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Optimism of 2008 replaced with dishing out 'revenge'

Governing will be difficult after Obama's polarizing campaign

John Kass

11:53 AM CST, November 7, 2012

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With the economy still in shambles and millions out of work or underemployed, President Barack Obama was still able to celebrate re-election on Tuesday. But the man from Chicago paid a price.

You could see the exhaustion in him leading up to Election Day. He's gone gray before our eyes. There are lines in that once-youthful face. He still flashes the smile, but it's a hard smile and his eyes don't smile much.

But who wouldn't be exhausted in that job, while running that kind of campaign?

It could have been easier if he'd listened to the Chicago political guys and focused on putting people back to work rather than stubbornly ramming a massive nationalized health care plan through Congress with his former Democratic majority.

But he held to principle. Like me, you may disagree with him and his yearning for all that hideous federal muscle. But to be fair, you have to credit the man. He risked it all to do what he thought should be done. And he won.

Now, though, it gets worse, not better. He's going to have a difficult time governing after the kind of campaign he's run. Obama's re-election proved one thing true about American politics:

Negative campaigning really works when you don't have a record to run on.

He didn't even attempt to unify the nation in 2012. Instead he chopped it into pieces in order to reassemble a winning political map. Gone was the optimistic young fellow of 2008, soothing a nation with soaring, messianic rhetoric, talking of great ideas. This time it was all about class warfare and race and gender cards and anger.

So President Gandhi became President Revenge.

"Don't boo, vote!" he shouted to a campaign crowd that was booing his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney. "Voting is the best revenge!"

Revenge? That's so Chicago.

If he had lost, a thousand villains would have been flogged by his adoring acolytes in the media. Racism, not his abysmal, job-killing economic policies, would have been blamed. Others would have cried "voter suppression," as former Democratic Chairman Howard Dean shrieked Tuesday, using fear to get out the Obama vote in Ohio. But Obama won.

Yet what did he win, exactly, except a second term?

"This has been the most polarizing, divisive campaign in history," Democratic pollster Doug Schoen told Jake Hartford and me before the election on WLS-AM 890, where we're filling in as weekday co-hosts from 9 to 11 a.m. "It's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for him to govern, given the polarization and division that this election has occasioned."

The president's victory means that the few remaining centrist Democrats won't be able to redefine the party for 2016. The centrists have been cast adrift. The Democrats rule from the left now. It's the triumph of Roosevelt over Reagan.

Obama's whipping boys, the congressional Republicans, won't be eager to reach any sort of compromise with the man who vilified them. They're up for election in just two years. Big-government GOP moderates will now face off against conservatives and libertarians hoping to reclaim their party from the establishment pro-war corporatists.

Obama was ripe for the picking, yes, but Romney ran a terrible campaign. Historians will trace it back to the pungent "Etch A Sketch" comment by Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom.

After Romney campaigned as a conservative in the primaries, Fehrnstrom announced the candidate would hit the "reset button" to become a moderate.

"Everything changes," Fehrnstrom told CNN months ago. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."

The Republican grass-roots blanched. Who was this man, a conservative, a flip-flopper? Or just another establishment Republican corporatist without a core.

If Romney didn't know what he was, President Obama knew where he was going: at the Republican jugular.

His surrogates accused Romney of all but infecting that steelworker's wife with cancer, and things got even more negative after that. So how much cynicism will it take to forget the president's campaign?

"It's going to take a lot of cynicism," Schoen said. "If you look at how the politicians are reacting to the polarization and division, it's not good and I don't see any indications or plans suggesting we're going to be able to put this election behind us anytime soon."

Obama will have to walk across his own political scorched earth on the way to governing in a second term.

He might consider wearing a brown robe, a rope belt and sandals, and try again to invoke that gentle, messianic persona of 2008, the political St. Francis from Chicago, while he wanders the ravaged landscape in search of friends across the aisle.

His first election was an elegant appeal for unity to a war-weary nation. Obama belittled negative campaigning as the refuge of the small-minded. This time around, he wanted what they all want: a second term.

So it was revenge politics. Class war. Race politics, by proxy. A ginned-up "war against women," all of it so that he could rip the American quilt he sewed in 2008 into pieces, and stitch it back together to win on Tuesday.

Savaging the other guy early — as Obama did to Romney in Ohio and other battleground states — was remarkably effective. He spent his money wisely.

He'll trumpet Obamacare as his legacy, yes, but politically, it's this:

The politics of revenge are best served cold.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass