How did he do it? With nearly 8 per cent unemployment, a famously diffident public temperament and an inflamed opposition, how did Barack Obama score such an easy election win?
First, he had some important structural advantages. Elected incumbents don’t often lose US presidential elections. In the past 80 years, only Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush have managed it and Mitt Romney lacks the native political talents of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the victorious challengers in those remarkable elections. The power of the office was never more obvious than during the response to Hurricane Sandy, an unusually violent October surprise, as Mr Obama played crisis-manager-in-chief while Mr Romney was forced to tiptoe his way off the campaign trail.
Second, Obama enjoyed a remarkable run of luck in 2012. The Supreme Court could have struck down his signature domestic achievement, the healthcare law that now bears his name, leaving supporters to wonder if he could deliver on anything big. Instead, a 5-4 vote gave him a crucial political victory. The eurozone might have descended into chaos this summer, but the willingness of Germany and the European Central Bank to keep a reform process on track prevented a European market meltdown that would surely have sent Wall Street – and Mr Obama’s re-election bid – tumbling. Finally, the US Federal Reserve produced a kind of blank cheque programme of quantitative easing to restore the economic recovery after a wobbly few months. Chief Justice John Roberts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Fed Chief Ben Bernanke are hardly Obama’s ideological soul mates, but each had a hand in delivering him a second term.
There’s a broader point to be made about incumbency in today’s volatile world. In the past, holding the office was an advantage, not just in America, but in every advanced industrial democracy with a reasonably robust economy. Voters need a reason to vote for a change of course, incumbents have more to offer potential donors and opinion-makers, and there are more opportunities to show gravitas when playing the role of international statesman.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, however, incumbency hasn’t proved such a prize. In fact, in nearly two dozen EU elections since September 2008, incumbent parties have been pushed from power. In Europe, of course, the watchword has been austerity, the deeply unpopular belt-tightening that has fuelled public fury in many countries. It wasn’t simply the likes of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Belgium and Bulgaria that voted to shuffle the deck. Governments in Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland have gone down too. Nicolas Sarkozy took a beating for even hinting that France might have to learn to do more with less. Even Silvio Berlusconi, who has more political lives than a dozen cats, couldn’t survive.
There are two notable exceptions to the austerity rule. The first is Ms Merkel, who has defied the anti-incumbent trend, in part by limiting her calls for austerity to other countries. The other is Mr Obama, who would have spent even more to stimulate a US recovery if congressional Republicans had let him.
Fortunately, neither Republicans nor Democrats will prosper if America goes barrelling over its fiscal cliff, the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect in January if Mr Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner can’t reach a budget deal. And when austerity measures become unavoidable to restore America to fiscal health, Mr Obama will have Republican partners to share both the credit and blame.
But Mr Obama’s greatest advantage in finally embracing austerity is that he has no more elections to face, freeing him to make tough choices and consider his place in history. Many Europeans believe that American politics is broken. But when it comes to enabling austerity, term limits are not such a bad thing.