ELECTION 2012: Obama and His Coalition: Let the Real Hope and Change Begin

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Analysis Law and Policy

ELECTION 2012: Obama and His Coalition: Let the Real Hope and Change Begin

Sheila Bapat

Looking ahead to the next four years, this strengthened “marriage” between Obama, Democrats generally, and non-white and women voters could help carve a path to genuinely progressive economic policy.

CNN commentator Gloria Borger correctly pointed out Tuesday night that the election results tell a story about demographics: President Obama and other Democrats were victorious in large part because they built a coalition of non-white and women supporters. According to ABC exit polls, Obama beat Romney last night among non-white voters 60 to 39 percent, dwarfing his 2008 numbers against McCain. And, Obama won over women voters by an estimated 12 percent, holding onto his margin among women voters from 2008.

But the love affair between Obama, Democrats generally, and non-white and women voters is not about identity politics. It is at its core about economics. Ultimately, the administration’s narrative over the past four years showed a strong commitment to issues affecting those who are not economically privileged in the United States—and even before the “47 percent” comments surfaced, this difference on economic issues became a critical point of distinction between Obama and Governor Romney.

In terms of health policy, the Affordable Care Act has been critical for many non-white and women voters for many reasons. Possibly carrying the most weight is health reform’s Medicaid expansion, as it is such a critical program for both non-white Americans and women. In addition, the President and Democrats’ near unwavering support for women’s reproductive health has solidified their relationship with women voters: health reform’s contraceptive coverage benefit was also popular among many women voters.

In terms of pay equity, much has been said about Obama’s decision to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first act as President. In addition to reversing a harmful Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company, this law became an important symbol that President Obama takes issues of economic inequity seriously.

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Looking ahead to the next four years, this strengthened “marriage” between Obama, Democrats generally, and non-white and women voters could help carve a path to genuinely progressive economic policy. For example, this administration has a chance to support a national paid family leave program. Paid family leave helps eliminate the financial struggle people face when they take time off of work to care for family and new babies. Paid family leave also help address pay equity and gender wealth disparity: it is typically women who leave the workforce to care for their new babies or for sick relatives, and these departures from the workforce can take an economic toll. Currently only three states offer paid family leave programs: California, New Jersey and Washington state. According to Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a few members of Congress are currently building a movement around paid family leave that could find its way to Obama’s desk at some point in the next four years.

The second Obama administration could also continue to back the Paycheck Fairness Act, a proactive piece of legislation that could give employees the ability to ask for information about salaries and any gender disparities that may exist. While the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act only restored rights the Supreme Court had stripped years earlier in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company, the Paycheck Fairness Act could help employees identify and address salary discrepancies that exist in the workplace. President Obama supported the Paycheck Fairness Act and was disappointed by the Senate’s rejection of the law this past June. This new Senate, armed with 20 women including several powerful advocates like Elizabeth Warren, could manage to pass this legislation.

Finally, and arguably most important, the second Obama administration has a strong chance of appointing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor. Ginsburg has demonstrated a deep commitment to women’s economic equality, both through her rulings on reproductive justice issues, as well as employment matters (United States v. Virginia and Frontiero v. Richardson). Also worth noting is that, without blinking, President Obama nominated two women justices to the United States Supreme Court back to back—Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan—and in so doing has helped normalize the idea of having women on the Supreme Court. The possibility that President Obama will appoint Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor could be another important legacy of his second term.

Tuesday night was a resounding victory for progressive voters, and speaks volumes about the potential to make headway on an array of progressive economic issues at the federal level. President Obama’s victory led the way; along with new Democrats in the Senate including economic justice advocate Elizabeth Warren, he could help create a formidable progressive economic agenda. And in shaping his legacy, Obama could use the next four years to truly address economic inequality in the United States.