Change is not a light switch. You can’t just turn it on and off. It’s easy to promise, hard to effect, and recognizable only in retrospect after experience decides whether it has been for the better or worse.
Twenty months after putting change on the national agenda, Barack Obama woke up Wednesday morning with a sweeping mandate to give it his best shot. He won the presidency with a larger share of the popular vote than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He takes office with his Democratic party firmly in control of both the House and the Senate, his vanquished opponent holding out the olive branch of “earnest efforts to help him bring us together,” and a country embroiled in two wars and on the precipice of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
He succeeds a president who came into office only after a Supreme Court battle over hanging chads in Florida, who was re-elected by virtue of gutter-snipe attacks on his opponent’s Vietnam war record, and who leaves office with the lowest approval rating of any president in history and 85 percent of the electorate believing America is on the wrong track.
The question is not whether Obama will change Washington. New administrations bring with them new people and new policies that inevitably set a new agenda. Obama’s is a middle class tax cut, national health care and major investments in alternative energy, education and infrastructure; but he inherits at the get go a $700 billion bailout package that could leave him with a trillion dollar deficit in his first year in office.
The question is whether –– “in the fierce urgency of now” –– he can accomplish any of this and at the same time fulfill his campaign promise to change the way Washington does business. Curtailing the influence of lobbyists, making the legislative process more transparent and fighting the entrenched interests requires a slow evolution in the Washington culture that will pit him against some of his own party leaders.
Call me a cynic, but winning the presidency was a cakewalk compared to the dance that will be required to change Washington and pass his programs.
Obama’s victory was complete. In the parlance of a horse race, he hit the trifecta, putting together an impressive combination of money, mechanics and message.
He raised an astonishing $630 million –– more than $300 million of it from Internet contributions averaging $86 apiece –– and he spent it taking his message to parts of the country that haven’t seen a serious Democratic presidential contender in 30 years. His campaign married new age technologies to old school community organizing and fielded a professional and volunteer operation in 18 battleground states that brought 12 of them into his victory column (ten more than John Kerry won in 2004).
His organization set a new standard for presidential campaigns. At the next Republican convention, Rudy Giuliani will have to look elsewhere for his laugh lines before he again questions what a community organizer does. The Internet-based field operation the Obama team put together has taken American politics to a new level of sophistication, and it’s doubtful we can ever climb back down.
“Ice Cold Discipline”
In their New York Times election wrap-up, Adam Nagourney, Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny found an admirer in McCain’s own campaign manager, Steve Schmidt.
The Obama campaign, Schmidt told the Times, “was perfectly run; it made few mistakes. And it took full advantage of an environment where the American people had turned on the incumbent president of the Republican Party and badly wanted change.”
Obama himself, Schmidt added, “was a once-in-a-generation orator. A good debater. And (he had) an eloquent message. He was . . . ice cold disciplined about the execution of his campaign message. He was an extremely formidable candidate.”
Obama, The Candidate
The single-most reason Obama won was the candidate himself. In presidential politics, authenticity is a great American virtue, and we reward it with our vote regardless of race, creed, or gender (see Sarah Palin.) John McCain failed in his quest for the presidency because he ran a campaign that was not in his nature. George Bush won because he did.
Barack Obama is a complex man living inside a complex skin. The experiences that shaped him over the course of his life are so wide ranging it took him two books to describe them. But he used that writing to find a way of speaking that reflects his depth of thought in terms ordinary people can easily understand. When he speaks, you feel you are touching his core values. Whether you agree with him or not, you don’t feel lied to. Under the tutelage of his friend and advisor David Axelrod, he has also learned how valuable it is in politics to distill his message into a few sentences –– even better, a single word. Change.
Change is the oldest mantra in the political vocabulary. But in Obama’s eloquent hands it became a punctuation mark on simple ideas simply expressed. As did “Hope” and “Yes We Can.” True believers at his speeches waited for his pauses to shout these punch lines back at him. But it is what Obama said between the pauses that won him the presidency. He made sense of a senselessly complex world that most of America think is stacked against them.
About the time the TV networks showed Ohio and Florida trending Democratic, I threw on my tennies Election Night and hopped the Blue Line down to Grant Park. The closer the train got to the Loop, the larger the crowds were on the platform. Although less than a quarter of the one million people Mayor Daley predicted turned out, the 240,000 who did were nothing to sneeze at. The ticketed and the ticket-less flowed peacefully along the sidewalks and closed streets to find some vantage point to catch a glimpse of the new president.
Access to the park was divided into areas of influence. Funders and key supporters, brought in on trolleys from the nearby Hyatt Regency, ringed the front of the stage. The general public crowded in behind. The media observed from television risers, trailers and press tents (if they paid the fee) or a general press section with big TV’s (if they did not.) I occupied the latter along with a number of Columbia College students, foreign press reporters, Richard Roeper, Citizen Kate, and Amarosa from “The Apprentice.”
The historic import of the night was palpable.
“A nation that in living memory struggled violenty over racial equality will have as its next president a 47-year-old, one-term U.S. senator born of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother,” Mike Dorning and Jim Tankersley wrote the morning after in the Chicago Tribune. “He is the first president elected from Chicago and the first to rise from a career in Illinois politics since Abraham Lincoln emerged from frontier obscurity to lead the nation through the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.”
A young black man seeing Jesse Jackson slip into the VIP area shouted, “Reverend, you paved the way!” Two longtime black reporters who have been covering Chicago’s polarizing racial politics since the days of Bernie Epton hugged when CNN projected Obama the winner. Two other women at my side broke into uncontrollable sobs.
Looking out into the endless mass of spectators, I could see people crying, dancing, and chanting “Yes We Can.” On the Jumbotron, cameras caught the Rev. Jackson with tears welling in his eyes and Oprah Winfrey exuberantly leaning over the rope line.
It was a night of cell phone text messages to friends (“I’m here, Where RU?”) photos for the memory book and souvenirs for the T-shirt drawer or bulletin board (my favorite, an “I was at the Obama Victory Rally” button handed out free by a Columbia student as I left the park.)
A Gracious Loser
Meanwhile, at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, the mood was more somber. John McCain stepped to the microphone to offer his concession speech. For the first time in months, the John McCain who captured my imagination a year ago with his promise to reach across the aisle to find solutions to America’s problems was back. But it was too late.
The slash and burn tactics brought to his campaign by Karl Rove’s team of Republican operatives had taken their toll. The strategy of “energizing the base” – epitomized by the selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate – had been an abject failure. Republican turnout this year was the worst in 30 years. Among new voters going to the polls, Obama beat McCain, 72 percent to 27 percent, according to exit polls.
McCain’s floundering attempts to find a compelling message lost him the traditional Republican edge among women and white men. His reversal on his own immigration bill –– to accommodate the right wing of his party in the primaries –– cost him dearly in Hispanic support in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, all of which he lost to Obama.
But it was the John McCain of old who took the stage Tuesday night in Phoenix to recognize the historic significance and special pride African-Americans can take in Obama’s election. “Let there be no reason now for any American not to cherish their citizenship in this the greatest nation on earth,” he said.
“Senator Obama and I have had our differences –– and he has prevailed, No doubt those differences remain,” he went on. “These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us in the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together.”
More Than ‘Just Words’
Hillary Clinton once scoffed at Obama’s speeches as “just words.” John McCain called them lofty oratory. But they carry the hope Obama offers America just as much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats did on the radio in 1933. They are the articulation of ideas, and without ideas there can be no change. Delivered by a man who knows what he wants to say, and when he wants to say it, they come with a power we haven’t seen since the days of John F. Kennedy.
Obama had a few more he wanted to say Election Night. The build-up to his appearance was a medley of songs he’d used along the campaign trail: “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, “Only in America” by Brooks and Dunn, “Sweet Home, Chicago” by Robert Johnson and “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” by Jackie Wilson. But the only music playing when Obama came out on stage was the sound of 100,000 people cheering.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he began.
“It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America –– I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you –– we as a people will get there.
“There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in American for two-hundred and twenty-one years –– block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”
“And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world –– our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down –– we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security –– we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright –– tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
“For that is the true genius of America –– that America can change.”
God bless you, and good luck.