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Yes, Obama Won a Mandate

Four more years. Four more years. Four more years … of what?

That’s pretty much the way the political conversation went Tuesday night, at least based on what I saw on television. Just minutes after the networks declared President Obama the winner, and while Karl Rove was still ranting to Fox colleagues about Mitt Romney's Ohio numbers, pundits were already starting a debate over whether the election gave Obama a mandate—and, if so, what that mandate entailed.

It’s a reasonable and important question. But before we get to it, let’s not forget that the significance of this election is as much about the past as the future. And that shouldn't diminish it.

Romney and the Republicans had turned the election into a referendum on liberalism—not just the liberalism of Obama, but also the liberalism of Johnson and Kennedy, of Truman and Roosevelt. They proposed massive, fundamental changes to the welfare state and wholesale rollbacks of women’s rights, and challenged the philosophy behind such policies—the whole idea that governments should act to protect vulnerable groups and to guarantee economic security.

It was a huge gambit. And it failed. But conservatives aren’t going to drop their agenda. Come January, Paul Ryan will be back in the House of Representatives, running the budget committee, and he’ll find plenty of allies on and off Capitol Hill. But proposals to make Medicare a voucher program, to decimate Medicaid and food stamps, to reduce federal spending by unprecedented increments—those proposals have almost no chance of becoming law, at least in the forseeable future.

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And the most recent addition to the welfare state, the signature accomplishment of Obama’s term, isn’t going anywhere, either. I’ve waited more than two years to write this sentence: The Affordable Care Act is here to stay. It survived the Supreme Court and now it has survived the threat of a unified Republican government determined to repeal it. Implementation of the law will present huge challenges, but, for the first time in a long while, the administration and its allies can focus on those challenges rather than on rearguard political fights to keep the program alive.

The political focus on these programs over the last few months led many observers to say the campaign was “small.” I think these observers have forgotten how much these programs have meant—and will mean—to most Americans. For those who get sick, or lose their jobs, or use public schools, or have disabilities, or need college loans—for all of them, Obama’s victory means peace of mind.

The election also sent a big, powerful message about what it means to be an American. The election of an African-American to the nation’s highest office is old news by now, but it remains remarkable, particularly given the feverish, relentless efforts by conservatives to paint Obama as un-American. And the same goes for Obama’s political coalition. Lazy pundits have fallen into the habit of dismissing Obama’s constituency because it cedes white voters, particularly white men, to Republicans. But Obama’s disproportionately female, disproportionately minority coalition happens to be majority. And it's getting better. They are no longer the "other." They are the authentic face of America.

But what about the next four years? Doesn’t Obama still need a governing plan? Sure. And if Obama has been relatively silent lately on some urgent issues—chief among them, climate change—he’s been quite clear when it comes to economic policy. He’s produced plans for strengthening the recovery. He’s laid out principles for reducing the deficit: Relatively modest reductions in spending coupled with higher taxes on the wealthy. And with the coming debate over the spending sequester and expiration of the Bush tax cuts, both set for January 2013, Obama will get a chance to apply those principles.

The stakes in this fight are large: Depending on the terms, they will define the scope of the federal government for at least a generation to come. And, unlike in recent fiscal debates, Obama should have leverage—more, perhaps, than at any time since the earliest days of his presidency. He can hold out in the debate over the sequester and Bush tax cuts, because the default action—doing nothing—is far worse for Republicans than it is for him. And with the newly elected Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren joining the reelected Sherrod Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate, Obama should have a more unified and incrementally more liberal congressional party behind him. (Hopefully they will push Obama, even as they get his back.)

How this plays out depends a great deal on the Republicans, of course. At least since early 2010, after the bruising fight over health care, Obama has been predicting that the Republicans would not become a responsible governing party until they experienced the consequences of extremism. Now that has happened. Republicans effectively ceded winnable Senate seats by nominating far-right candidates. And they lost a potentially winnable presidential election by nominating a candidate who ran on the Paul Ryan budget and even named Ryan as his running mate.

Maybe some moderates will react to Tuesday’s GOP debacle by breaking with the Tea Party, and reaching out to Obama. Or maybe they will be too scared of reprisals from the right wing, as they have ever since Obama took office. I have no idea. But, whatever happens over the next four years, Obama’s reelection guarantees that the laws passed during his first term stay on the books. That instantly makes him one of the most accomplished presidents of modern times. Already Obama and his allies have shaped this country in ways that will last for generations—making life more secure, and creating new opportunities, for tens of millions of Americans.