This article flows from a simple assumption. Barack Obama will be elected the 44th President of the United States, and on January 20th, 2009 he will assume said office.
By now, this claim can be adequately supported by more than my own personal hopes, or to be quite honest, prayers. For the past few weeks, Sen. Obama has seen his aggregate national lead grow from five points in mid-September to more than seven by the time this article was written. What is most noteworthy however is that Obama’s national resurgence has been driven by those elusive ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states that have come to determine electoral college math and political competition at the national level for at least the past three election cycles. What this means is that Obama, unlike Gore and Kerry before him, has been able to carve out for himself a sizable base of support in states where few Democrats have dared tread. These include Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri and Missouri, as well as Nevada and Indiana. In brass tax terms, this makes securing victory over the next three weeks for the McCain-Palin ticket a nearly impossible task. While Obama is in the position of having to keep hi s new-found momentum, McCain-Palin will not only have to win an overwhelming majority of lingering toss up states—West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada and North Carolina—but will have to flip some swing states in which Obama already enjoys a significant lead–Virginia, Colorado or Florida. Of course, politics is a fickle game, and anything could happen in two weeks. But this close to election day, it is safe to say that the national tide is swelling towards the election of the first African American President in US history.
My dear friend Mr. Maass would say differently, and his observations are well taken. However, what he fails to give proper attention to is that the McCain-Palin ticket is running low on one of the most valuable resources in modern American politics: time. For American voters, the economy has now become THE issue. And given that more voters trust Sen. Obama with handling the economy than Sen. McCain it only makes sense that such a shift would benefit the Democratic camp. Mr. Maass is correct in arguing that McCain’s best hope at this point is to take back ‘issue ownership’ on the economy, or in other words, to convince the American people that they should look to him for leadership and commentary on the issue. This is all well and good, but causing shifts in public opinion takes up resources like time and campaign cash, and it is often times hard to predict what will work. Will voters even respond to a last-ditch effort by McCain to get serious about the economy? It’s hard to tell, but with only twenty-two days until the election, McCain has virtually no room to test the waters of the electorate. And given the amount of ground he would have to cover—most polls now show that by a ratio of 2-to-1, American blame Republicans for the current financial crisis, with Obama the clear leader on questions of who can be trusted with the economy—it is unlikely that McCain can craft a convincing, cohesive and effective strategy in time. Of course, there is always the option of refocusing voter attention on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on national security in general. For McCain, this may indeed be the preferable strategy. Again however, it may be too late and require too much from McCain-Palin to convince an American public fearful of total economic collapse that they should vote on any other issue besides their own economic security.
That being said, there is room for consensus between Maass and I. Like many of my liberal-minded friends, the prospect of total Democratic control of the House, Senate and White House is almost too good to be true. After eight years of George W. Bush and countless hours spent worrying about the direction of our country, it’s an easy trap to fall into. The truth of the matter however is that total control of government by one political ideology may not be in the best interests of the nation. If Bush II has taught us anything, it is that government by an unyielding, and unchecked political ideology can do little serve the public good. To borrow from the vocabulary of classical Republicanism and its attendants by way of Hamilton and Madison, this sort of power arrangement more often than not serves the interests of an individual group or institution above those of the public in general. Of course, Hamilton and Madison were not speaking about political parties outright, as they didn’t exist at the time. But, at the end of the day, the logic and overarching fear that government will work to serve the interests of the few at the cost of the many is as real a concern today as it was at the time of this nation’s founding.
I wonder if a democratic super-majority in the houses of Government will have the same effect as the Bush-led Republican fait accompli. For one thing, Democrats often run into trouble when to they try to agree on, well, anything. Put simply, the problem with buying into a liberal political ethos is that it necessarily places a premium on debate and freethinking, rather than acting lock step in accordance with party ideology. In a party that includes such divergent ideologies and personalities like Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, it may be safe to assume that competing interests and ideologies will indeed check an Obama administration. Most of the time, this makes it difficult for Democrats to govern effectively. But for people like Mr. Maass, this may be of some comfort when thinking about the prospect of 60+ very individual and opinionated Democratic Senators and the implications this may have for our Republic.
For the past two years, we have been asked to believe in our collective ability to create a new America. This strategy has served him well until now. And over the next three weeks, he simply needs to keep the ship of hope afloat in order to secure victory. He has successfully taken ownership on the economy, and more and more the Americans are coming to think of him as ‘presidential.’ This last trend is difficult to quantity, but it can make or break a presidential campaign. For the next twenty or so days, Obama needs to start transforming himself into President Obama by talking about what his administration will look like, and what the first 100 days of his administration will accomplish. If he does this, Im confident that the country will follow suit.
While I am now confident that Sen. Obama will soon become President Obama, I am nonetheless concerned about what will happen as soon as his hand comes off of the bible and the next four years of governing lay before him. Up to this point, Sen. Obama has done a good job of reminding us about the continuities of our liberal tradition. The challenge Obama faces now is translating these lofty ideals into concrete and effective policy prescriptions. Beyond talking about the greater aims of our liberal experiment, Obama’s administration will have to address the prevailing discontinuities of liberty in modern American society. Like Lyndon Johnson before him, Obama comes into office at a time of great international, and political, upheaval. The test will be whether or not he succumbs to the pressure of doing business as usual in the name of getting things back in order. Will he push the envelope in the hopes of creating a better America? For Lyndon Johnson, this meant putting enormous amounts of political capital into passing civil rights legislation, education reform and the expansion of welfare and social security. Though he himself did not personally believe in all of these policy movements, he nonetheless felt that Roosevelt-inspired liberalism had to respond to the lingering echoes of racial segregation in America.
The greatest challenge for an Obama administration will be settling upon a cohesive vision of American society that it wishes to pursue. Or, in other words, what sort of change will an Obama-Biden White House work for. To be sure, the first 100 days of the administration will have to focus on fixing the lingering effects of the current financial crisis. And this presents perhaps the first test of Obama’s change narrative. For most liberal commentators, this crisis offers an opening for a liberal rebirth on the back of a Conservative decline. The end of the Reagan era, of which Bush can be considered the final stage, however will not come easily. As Princeton professor Toni Morrison has observed, the pains of rebirth that will come along with a ‘new’ or significantly changed America may indeed be so great as to result in more of the same. The task for Obama-Biden will be to summon enough courage and political will to see these changes through. What changes specifically? Well, w e now know that government is not always the enemy and that market regulation can actually act to correct market failure. As such, the regulation of leverage in financial markets should be the first order of the day. Doing so however will surely draw a mountain of criticism from free-market devotees.
For an Obama administration, this represents more than a disagreement between competing policy decisions. It represents a battle between two competing visions of America. In essence then, the stakes are higher; the incentives for opposition, greater; and the need for success, imperative. Perhaps now, as an Obama administration is about to begin, the central value of the campaign—hope–needs to be the order of the day.
Mr. Obama, something is wrong with America. And most of us feel that something drastic needs to happen to get us back on track. I hope you are the man for the job, and wish you the best of luck.