Obama's Win May Bring 'Same Kind of Gridlock'

Re-election may not loosen the country from the grips of gridlock but may indicate economic optimism, Duke experts say

At the Sanford School viewing party, some cheer, others are dismayed at the results.  Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography
At the Sanford School viewing party, some cheer, others are dismayed at the results. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

Barack Obama's re-election suggests voters believe the economy is improving and aren't hung up on the president's national health care program, Duke experts say.

But they add that Obama's win was also slim enough to knock back any talk of a national mandate.

With an incumbent president defending his turf and no power shifts in either chamber of Congress, the country may not change much in the near future, cautions David Rohde, a Duke political science professor. In 2008, Obama won the popular vote by seven percentage points over John McCain. On Tuesday, he squeaked past Republican nominee Mitt Romney by two percentage points.

"House Speaker (John) Boehner made it clear he doesn't see this as a mandate for the kinds of things the president wants, like higher taxes on the wealthy," Rohde said Wednesday morning. "There is the potential for the same kind of gridlock."

A wider margin of victory would have given Obama a stronger hand to play, Rohde added.

"If the president had won by more than he won four years ago, he could claim a stronger endorsement of his policies," Rohde said.

Video: Students watch election results at the Sanford School.  Video by Saleem Reshamwala 

Donald Taylor, a Duke public policy professor specializing in health care policy, said Obama's win was a victory for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the national health care initiative known as "Obamacare." Romney had pledged to do away with the controversial act, which won approval two years ago.

Taylor said the challenge to Obamacare over the last two years by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party didn't translate in this presidential election.

"If people wanted Obamacare gone, all they had to do was elect Romney and give the Republicans the House and the Senate," he said. "Now, it's never going away."

Still, Taylor expects the health insurance act to be tweaked and changed over time.

Romney's campaign focused largely on the lagging economy and his desire to create millions of new jobs. But a jobs report just last week reporting growth, and unemployment rates in key swing states like Ohio and Virginia lower than the national average, likely gave the president a boost, said Aaron "Ronnie" Chatterji, a professor in Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

And while Romney blasted Obama throughout the campaign as weak on economic issues, voters were clearly split on which candidate could best address them, added Chatterji, a former senior economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisors.

"Romney was very narrowly tailored on the economy and jobs," he said. "If you were in Gov. Romney's camp, you'd hope people would come to the polls thinking about the economy. But clearly not everyone who cared about the economy voted for Romney."

With the economy eating up so much of the election's oxygen, foreign policy issues were largely relegated to the background, said Peter Feaver, a Duke professor of political science and public policy. Obama hasn't been particularly specific about dealing with potential international security issues in Syria, Mali or other turbulent parts of the world, and the American people haven't demanded specifics either, said Feaver, who directs the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

"What is the sentiment of the country regarding Syria? I don't think anyone has a very good handle on that," Feaver said. "We don't have a very clear window into the president's mood on this, nor do we really know what the electorate is thinking. I think we're in a time of great foreign policy uncertainty."

Obama's win was aided by strong turnout in battleground Midwestern states, a get-out-the-vote effort to which organized labor contributed mightily, said Daniel Bowling, a Duke law professor. With that political capital in its back pocket, organized labor will likely push its legislative priorities to the top of Obama's second-term agenda, including a prohibition of permanent replacements during lawful strike and increased penalties for unfair labor practices, Bowling said.

"Organized labor isn't going to abandon the president or the Democratic Party," Bowling said. "But there is another election in two years, and the president can't afford for labor to sit it out."