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A Second-term Mission for Obama: Strengthen Ties Across Racial Lines

11/29/2012 10:31 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

Mercifully, the election is over. The American people have chosen Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. But what does that mean? In addition to policy disagreements, over the course of the campaign we saw two starkly different approaches to the racial, religious and cultural divisions that continue to afflict American society.

According to an Apollo Group/National Journal Next America poll taken Sept. 27 to Oct. 2, half of white respondents believe "traditional American values" are threatened by immigration-related demographic changes, and 90 percent of them were backing Romney. Of those who did not feel threatened, 60 percent supported Obama. The poll suggests that culturally anxious white voters who fear increased diversity were Romney's base, and he exploited -- and exacerbated -- their anxieties to win votes.

For example, the Romney campaign repeatedly portrayed Obama as not only wrong on substance, but as somehow less-than-fully American. Romney characterized Obama's ideas on the economy and his broader philosophy as "foreign." Over the summer, Romney surrogate John Sununu wished Obama would "learn to be an American." And two weeks before the election, Sununu charged that Colin Powell endorsed the president because both are black.

Obama avoided racially divisive rhetoric; he spoke of inclusion. In the second presidential debate, he explained that young people brought here illegally as children but who remember no home besides America "understand themselves as Americans." As his adviser Valerie Jarrett recently stated: "The president knows that some people may choose to be divided by differences -- race, gender, religion -- but his focus is on bringing people together."

The president's re-election should serve to cement the sentiment among nonwhites that they are indeed full members of the American community; a person of color can become our leader -- even twice. A second Obama term does not mean we are a post-racial society any more than did his first. The president must help bridge the gap between culturally anxious white Americans and the minorities who, taken together, are projected to be the majority within two generations. Of course, he cannot do this alone. The voices of reason on the right must speak out and indeed shout down those who employ paranoid rhetoric designed to inflame division among Americans of different backgrounds.

But our country has made undeniable progress toward inclusion in recent years. With any luck, we've seen the last presidential candidate whose campaign plays on racial divisions and stereotypes.

Americans should hope and expect that Obama, having run his last campaign, will focus even more on inclusion and strengthening our national identity than he could in a first term dominated by economic crisis, health care reform, financial reforms and other matters reasonably seen as more pressing in the moment. In the long run, however, a multi-ethnic society such as ours must take care to invigorate the bonds among people of different backgrounds so that we see one another as fellow Americans in spite of our differences.

Although now is perhaps a hard time to see it, given the passions aroused by an election season, there is no question that since the 1960s we have done a great deal to move closer to the ideal of true cross-racial American unity, to bolster our sense of national community, and to ensure that all of us feel fully part of the American family. There is also no question that we are not there yet. Obama has for two decades spoken of his passion on this topic.

On Election Night, the president called for "a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant's daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag, to the young boy on the South Side of Chicago... to the furniture worker's child in North Carolina." He sees helping us get closer to that ideal as a calling, and he should pursue it with renewed purpose.

His victory speech reminds us that Obama has the potential to have a greater impact on the way we understand our national identity than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Now that he has a second term, the time has come for him to fulfill that potential.