In the wake of President Barack Obama’s victory over challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, Knowledge at Wharton Today asked Wharton faculty for their perspective on a number of issues that will take center stage in the days and months ahead.

We posed a number of questions, including:

  1. What do you think was the biggest reason for Romney’s loss? What should he have done differently?
  2. What was the biggest reason for Obama’s victory?
  3. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal suggested that Obama got a big boost in the election from two men: Ben Bernanke and his quantitative easing, and John Roberts, who joined four other Supreme Court justices in upholding Obamacare. Do you agree?
  4. The election raised interesting demographic questions. Romney appealed to many white males, while Obama appealed to many Hispanics, Asians, women and African Americans. Does this suggest that Republicans need a better strategy to attract these groups going forward?
  5. What should Obama’s strategy be for dealing with the key issues of unemployment, the fiscal cliff and the deficit?
  6. Is there any reason to think that the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, will be more willing to work with Obama to get some of these issues resolved? Can the two parties hope to work together?

Here is what we heard:

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources:

“Aside from the tactical issues, the fundamental issue in the election was the role of government. The vote was basically split between those who did not think government did much for them economically and those who thought government either did, or should do, something for them. The Democrat/Republican divide always reflects this issue, but it was much starker this time because the Republican position was more extreme, particularly in the proposed cuts for social services.

“The Romney campaign suffered because its proposals seemed to frighten too many voters who feel they need government protection. The Romney ticket also could not shed the baggage from the primaries on social issues – women’s rights and immigration, in particular – that hurt them with those voters.

“The biggest reason for the Obama victory in my mind was that Governor Romney’s various gaffes shifted the contest from being a referendum on President Obama and the poor state of the U.S. economy to being more of a referendum on Governor Romney. Much of the energy on the Democratic side seemed to be [directed] to voting against the Romney ticket.

“There are a hundred things that made a difference to the election. Certainly if Obamacare had been turned down by the Supreme Court, things would have been bad for the President, but then it was bad for the Democrats when the Supreme Court upheld Citizens United. Quantitative easing appears to be helping the economy, but it has been bad news for the President that none of the other treatments before helped much. A lot of other things could have gone differently that would have affected the outcome….

“The big question seems to be how the Republican party, especially in the House of Representatives, will see their effort over the last four years to obstruct anything that would appear to give the President a legislative victory. The goal of that approach was to prevent the President’s reelection. That did not work. So what do they do now?”

Mark V. Pauly, professor of health care management:

On why Romney lost: “The economy recovered enough to take away his main argument for change.”

On The Wall Street Journal editorial: “I do not see that the court decision on health care reform meant more votes for the President. It kept an issue alive — you need to vote Republicans [into office] to get rid of Obamacare — but that was obviously not an important enough issue, nor should it have been since in the short run, relatively few people gain or lose from health care reform.”  

On dealing with the issues of unemployment, the fiscal cliff and the deficit: “Republican control of the House of Representatives will keep us at the same point in discussing these issues as we were before the election.”

On whether the two parties can work together: “Now that the House knows it will have to deal with the President, I expect they will try to get some things resolved that were held hostage to the election. I think the President has used most of the ammunition he has in terms of executive orders and the like, so I expect the House will pull things their way. We will have some tax increase on millionaires and billionaires, but of course we do not have enough [of them], so that will not help the deficit that much. It will just make Democrats feel better.

“I am hoping this will set the stage for bipartisan tax reform along the lines of the Rivlin-Domenici or Bowles-Simpson [debt reduction plans]. Both have big health care parts to them. I think the election gives cover to Republicans to go along a little.”

Kent Smetters, professor of business economics and public policy:

On why Romney lost and Obama won: “Obama had a better ground game — more regional offices, more effort to get out the vote. Romney also focused solely on jobs without painting a broader picture. He should have channeled Reagan a bit more.”

On The Wall Street Journal editorial: “I don’t agree with it. Money injected by [the third round of quantitative easing] is basically just sitting on bank balance sheets. I think that the [Supreme Court decision on health care], if anything, helped mobilize conservatives behind Romney.”

On the demographics question about Obama’s popularity with minorities: “The election raised interesting demographic questions. Romney appealed to many white males, Obama to Hispanics, Asians, women, African Americans and other ‘minorities.’ Does this suggest that Republicans need a better strategy to appeal to these groups going forward? Romney also appealed to married females. But, yes, the Democrats are effective at class war politics. Republicans need to do a better job of explaining how prosperity is better than envy.”

On a strategy for dealing with unemployment, the fiscal cliff and the deficit: “The ‘fiscal cliff’ is a horrible term. Minus five for Bernanke for coming up with it; minus 10 for still being an old school Keynesian. Otherwise, I like him.

“The real cliff is if we keep focusing on the short run without also addressing the huge budget deficit. The problem with the U.S. economy is not the lack of consumption. We have plenty of it. The problem is the lack of investment. We need to address the fiscal cliff by removing some of the uncertainty about future tax rates and returns to investment. Any proposed solution to the fiscal cliff can’t be short-term and [can’t work without] comprehensive reform of the tax code and spending side that improves the long-run situation as well.”

On whether the two parties can work together: ”No, they will continue to play chicken. Hopefully, however, it will lead to a grand compromise, like the 1986 Tax Reform Act where Reagan and the House Democrats hammered out a deal that was tenable to both sides.”

Mark Duggan, professor of business economics and public policy:

On why Romney lost and Obama won: “A key reason for Obama’s victory is that the economy has been gaining more momentum over the last few months, with unemployment falling below 8% and job creation relatively strong. This may have given voters more confidence that his policies, such as his help for the auto industry — an important issue in arguably the most important state of Ohio — were working. His handling of Hurricane Sandy also probably helped to give him just a bit more support so that he pulled out wins in pretty much all of the states that were deemed battlegrounds.

“While Florida has still not been called, the races in states like Ohio, Virginia and Colorado were sufficiently close that even a small boost might have helped lead him to victory. Plus his victory margins in Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada were somewhat bigger than expected. On the foreign policy front, I think most people felt he won the third debate; that may have helped to tip the balance for many voters, too.”

On issues like the fiscal cliff, taxes and unemployment: “As for big things that are coming down the pike, the President will be negotiating with Congress on what to do about the upcoming fiscal cliff. Effective January 1, 2013, there are a set of spending cuts and tax increases taking effect that will lower the deficit by about $600 billion, which is close to 4% of GDP. While reducing the deficit is important, many think that a change in government policy of this magnitude could put the economy back into recession. Thus, it will be very important for Obama to work with Congress to make the right tradeoff between starting to tackle the deficit and stimulating economic growth.

“Certain parts of the fiscal cliff, like the payroll tax holiday (a 2 percentage point cut in this tax for all workers on their first $115,000 in earnings), are very unlikely to be renewed, but others — like the spending cuts and increases in income taxes — are likely to be negotiated. Long-term deficit reduction is also hugely important, with changes needed to the tax code and to entitlement programs.

“The fact that Obama will now be a second-term President may make it easier for him to confront these challenges as he does not need to worry about being re-elected. Indeed, that is why many support term limits.”