I arrived in Boston on the night of the third and last presidential debate – which focused solely on foreign policy. Despite the jet lag I was up early the following morning for breakfast with one of the handful of men who knows what it is like to stand on that stage – the former vice-president Walter Mondale.
Mondale, despite his advancing years, was insightful, engaging and candid. He pointed out that – at the age of just 51 – Barack Obama has now participated in his last ever presidential debate. And he said the overriding emotion he felt after the president’s final debate was “relief”. It is now often forgotten that in the first debate between Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984, Mondale was judged the clear winner. This time Mitt Romney came out on top in the first debate, with 70 per cent of the 70 million viewers judging him the winner. But 32 years on, it had little effect: Obama, like Reagan, went on to win the race, transformed from struggling incumbent to re-elected president with an improving economy.
Sure, the economy has been tough, but despite that the Democrats were widely judged to have had a better convention than the Republicans and left Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear poll bounce. Yet this contest went right down to the wire. How did that happen? Apart from a weak first presidential debate, most Democrats are blaming the lack of a clear campaign message. This weakness seems strange, not least because Obama demonstrated four years ago what a powerful communicator he could be, something we glimpsed again in his victory speech on the morning of Wednesday 7 November.
A former Bill Clinton staffer offered me this explanation: “Even as early as New Hampshire  with Gennifer Flowers and the ‘bimbo’ eruptions, we knew we had a brilliant, if flawed, politician. So we built a message architecture around our candidate to get him across the line. That was the real strength of ‘Opportunity, Community, Responsibility’, ‘Putting the People First’ and the rest of our campaign themes. [David] Axelrod and the Obama team have never faced that reckoning. Four years ago he was the perfect candidate, and ‘Hope and Change’ was enough. Four years on, we nearly learned it wasn’t.”
One task of any campaign is persuasion. The other is mobilisation. And we have just witnessed another masterclass in mobilisation.
Four years ago, David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign supremo, set the gold standard for field operations. This year the Democrats, through perspiration more than inspiration, retained their advantage.
But only last Saturday (3 November) did the sheer scale of Obama’s field operations emerge. A memo released by the campaign contained numbers that, if accurate, help explain his strong performance in the ten states that mattered most. The memo claimed party workers had registered 1,792,261 voters in the battleground states – nearly double the number of voters the Obama campaign registered in 2008.
The memo also suggests that, in contrast to Romney’s 50 million voter contacts, the Obama team made 125,646,479 personal phone calls or visits. As enthusiasts for American football will tell you, it’s important to have a good ground game and the Obama campaign showed that, on the ground, they’re still about as good as it gets.
The president’s in-box: foreign
It tells you something that during the presidential debate on foreign policy, Europe was not mentioned. Iran, China, Afghanistan, Syria . . . but no Europe. That reflects how, over the past four years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has led what’s become known as America’s “strategic pivot” towards Asia. In the coming weeks we will have a new US secretary of state and new Chinese leaders. They will face each other over policies from trade and currency to climate and security.
Iran will require immediate attention. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will have been deeply disappointed by Obama’s victory. But what matters is what happens next. On 24 October the New York Times ran a report (later denied) that the US is preparing to hold bilateral talks with Iran over the nuclear issue. Given the lack of progress and all the dangers involved in Israel launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran, let’s hope this report proves accurate. If a diplomatic breakthrough is not achieved we will be in unchartered waters. And soon.
The president’s in-box: domestic
“It’s the economy, stupid!” That was the maxim James Carville pinned to the wall of the Arkansas war room. Two decades on, perhaps the newly re-elected president should pin it up in the Oval Office. Although the US economy is growing at about 2 per cent, the immediate worry is a return to recession if a deal is not done to avoid the “fiscal cliff” – the automatic introduction of roughly $600bn of tax increases and spending cuts due early in 2013.
I visited my friend Gene Sperling, director of Obama’s National Economic Council, in the West Wing during the “debt ceiling” negotiations in 2011, when the poisonous partisan politics of Capitol Hill was all too obvious.
It seems likely that Obama and the Senate leader, Harry Reid, will be less tolerant of Republican obstruction this time. The view of triumphant if weary Democrats is that the best hope is a two-stage deal – a bridging agreement before the end of the year to calm the markets, and then a grand bargain, to be struck in 2013.
Labour and the Democrats
Anyone who thinks Obama’s re-election has no real influence on British politics should ask themselves this: how different would Tony Blair’s premiership have been if Al Gore and not George W Bush had won the White House as well as the vote in 2000? There is relief – and pride – about the result in Labour ranks, especially about the countless Labour activists who went as volunteers to learn and contribute. Mitcham and Morden CLP alone took 31 volunteers to help in Ohio.
Back in 2002, Bill Clinton told the Labour conference, “It is fun to be in a place where our crowd is still in office.” “Our crowd” gets back together next week when Clinton visits London. I’m hoping he might even hint at the name of the 2016 Democratic nominee.