BARACK OBAMA, JOINED by his transition team, speaks to the media on November 7 in Chicago. He is flanked by Vice-President-elect Joe Biden (left) and Rahm Emanuel, who will be the new White House Chief of Staff.
AT the selected hour, Barack Obama walked with his family down a broad catwalk into history. Thousands greeted them in Grant Park, Chicago, and millions more did so through their television screens. Obama’s opponent, John McCain, had conceded a hard-fought and long election cycle. Obama hugged his family, and then turned to face the cameras, not as a candidate but as the President-elect. The Bush years had taught the American people to fear others and to despair about their prospects. Obama’s campaign put forward hope and change as its motif. For proof of that hope and change, Obama need only have pointed to the crowds at his rallies over these two years and the enthusiasm they exuded. The crowds now came out and elected him President. The answer to those who wonder about the power of democracy, he pointed out, was “told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voice could be that difference.”Obama won a clear majority (52 per cent) of the 133 million votes cast. No Democrat since 1976 has won a majority of the votes. Even more astounding was Obama’s feat in the electoral college (E.C.). The founders of the U.S. political system worried that democracy might amount to mob rule, so they created a mechanism to circumvent the will of the voters. Each State gets a certain number of E.C. votes on the basis of its population and the number of elected representatives it sends to Washington, D.C. Since each State elects two Senators, States with very small populations (Wyoming and Vermont) have a disproportionate impact on the E.C. This has traditionally benefited the Republicans, who derive their support from the sparsely populated States of the south, the mid-west and the mountain states.The Democrats have, in the past several decades, dominated the politics of the more populous States on the two coasts (California and New York, for instance). But their populations are at a disadvantage in the E.C. In this election, Obama triumphed in many of the traditional Republican States (such as North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Colorado). He earned 364 votes to McCain’s 163. It was a landslide.
Obama’s campaign was monumental. The energy unleashed within the country was something to behold. Certainly there was the growing disenchantment with the overwhelming failure of the George Bush presidency. The Iraq war, the sub-prime economy, the collapsed infrastructure made dramatic by Hurricane Katrina, and the general sense of fear and belligerence turned off substantial sections from the Republicans.Bush’s approval rating hovered around 28 per cent during the course of the presidential campaign. John McCain inherited not only Bush’s mantle but also a party whose main ideas had come unravelled. The chaos in Iraq and an admission by former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan that the laissez-faire economic policies might have been excessive pushed McCain’s head below water. A lack of fresh ideas meant that McCain could only harp on about lower taxes. With unemployment on the rise, income was the problem, not taxes.Any Democratic candidate would have been in a good position given this context. But Obama was not just any candidate. He was disciplined and dexterous, who not only carried the weight of history lightly but also made sure to remain unruffled by the riotous attacks by the Republicans. Without fresh ideas, they threw everything at him. He did not pay them back in their own coin, preferring to stay with the issues, careful to act in accordance with his pledge to create a new grammar for American politics. The onerous primary campaign pitted Obama against some heavyweights in the Democratic Party, most notably Hillary Clinton.Hillary attacked Obama on every front – his skin colour, his name, his age, his resume. None of it worked. She did win some States with impressive margins, but she did not build the nationwide organisation that catapulted Obama to the Democratic Party’s candidacy. Not taking the lesson of his superb field-game to heart, McCain hurled the same kinds of things at Obama: his name, his religion, his resume. But none of these mattered.
What counted was that Obama’s team used every available (old and new) technological means to reach out to potential voters, register them and bring them to the polls. The campaign built up a database of small donors and volunteers, many from States that the Democratic establishment had given up on as too hard to win (the “Red” States). Obama’s campaign reached out to all these volunteers and made them the backbone of its effort to reach into neighbourhoods and workplaces, to transform everyday conversations into political discussions.The Obama machine was well-oiled and unprecedented, able to gather the grievances of the population around the standard of transformation. This was not an anti-Bush campaign alone but one that spoke to the aspirations of the population and transformed their resentments into hope.
The war in Iraq appeared a fiasco within months of its start. By late summer 2003, opinion polls showed support for the war falling along with the popularity of Bush. The Democratic Party held its primary campaign over the winter of 2003-04, and during the course of a less-than-inspiring fight, Senator John Kerry won the nomination.Kerry ran a miserable campaign, unwilling to challenge Bush on the question of torture and unable to nail the increasingly unpopular war on the Bush administration (Kerry had voted in October 2002 to authorise the use of force against Iraq). Kerry insufficiently galvanised those who felt imprisoned by the triumphant tone of the Republicans.
At his nominating convention, Kerry appeared already defeated. But a few days earlier, the Democratic Party had found its saviour. In 17 minutes and with 2,300 words the little-known candidate for Senator of Illinois, Barack Obama, rocked the country. As rhetoric, his speech was powerful, particularly if you factor in the smooth delivery by Obama. But what made it all the more momentous was that it worked for the Democrats, as the moment when the party rediscovered its capacity.Obama’s plea to go beyond partisanship was not new; indeed that is what every candidate seems to say. Nor was the laundry list of grievances he laid out. What was new was the fluency with which he talked to a new kind of America, not one that was captured by either the Democrats or the Republicans.He reached out beyond the Democrats’ base of unions, civil rights organisations and environmentalists. Marrying pragmatism with inspirational rhetoric, Obama hastened past the litmus tests that often trap Democratic candidates into the “wedge issues” Republicans use to move their base (abortion rights has been the main lever). Obama went home to Chicago and won the senatorial contest handily.Two years later, he entered the Democratic primary for the presidency. Others have run for President with as light a resume (Abraham Lincoln, for instance). That would be an issue, but it was not substantial. Obama took up the mantle of the progressive candidate, one carried in previous primaries by Jesse Jackson (1984, 1988) and Howard Dean (2004).The Democratic Party establishment’s candidate was Hillary Clinton, who inherited its donors. But what the party could not have foreseen was that its base was not prepared to anoint its choice. Kerry’s failure to win an election against a President embroiled in an unnecessary war proved that the judgment of the party elders was not to be trusted.
Obama’s machine moved rapidly to consolidate this base and to speak for it. Using all the new technology available, Obama reached out to the activists and to those who quickly became activists. They helped raise money, hold house parties to spread the word, and became the foot soldiers of his accession. “Hope” and “change” enthused them, and Obama’s deft ability to side-step the minefields of the “culture wars” (abortion, gay marriage) widened his appeal.Since the 1980s, the Democratic Party’s establishment has adopted the theory of triangulation: insecure about the party’s positions, the Democrats, like other Third Way parties, tried to mimic the Right on many issues. Obama’s rhetorical flourishes did not subscribe to such mimicry. His was a cannier tactic, to claim that the majority of Americans did not subscribe to divisiveness. He was unwilling to be drawn into a politics of division. John McCain never knew what hit him. Picking Sarah Palin, McCain tried to gain traction with his conservative base as well as draw in some women who felt embittered by Hillary Clinton’s loss. His hopes did not pan out. His campaign looked angry and disgruntled. When he said “hope” he sounded sarcastic. The sub-prime collapse towards the end of the campaign sealed his fate. He suspended his campaign and rushed to Washington, as if to take charge of the process. But his own party failed him by refusing to be steamrolled into voting for the bail out. McCain looked ineffectual rather than presidential.Obama, meanwhile, maintained his cool. He consulted with the establishment economists and spoke reassuringly about the need to move the bail out from Wall Street to Main Street (and, through a jobs programme, to the unemployment lines). This was the moment at which the election was decided. Polls showed McCain in the dust and Obama on a relentless rise. The vote on November 4 was a forgone conclusion.
The son of a white mother and a black father, one whose middle name is Hussein, and one who has lived and travelled widely around the world; this is not the typical biography of a President. Even 20 years ago it would have been impossible to imagine the moment. But much has changed in the past decades. The civil rights laws of the 1960s gave full legal equality to non-white citizens, although this barely altered the conditions of deprivation for those who need only glance backward to see their enslaved ancestors.Nevertheless, the new conditions of the 1980s enabled select non-white citizens to move into the upper reaches of the military, the academy, and the corporate world. In this post-segregated world, diversity was valued, and mainstream institutions prided themselves for hiring non-whites. It is this change that opened the doors of Occidental College, Columbia University and then Harvard to Barack Obama. A generation of black, Latino, and Asian youth came out of these elite institutions to positions of authority in the country’s institutions. What distinguished Obama from most of those who graduated from these colleges is that he decided to relinquish the lure of Wall Street for the most impoverished streets. He became a community organiser.In his 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father, Obama narrates how he was moved by the culture of the civil rights movement. From it he learnt that “communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men – and in the civil rights movement those dreams had been large.” His journey through the streets of Chicago to the presidency was marked by a determination to allow people to have big dreams and to tend to communities, small and large. But the advantage for Obama was that his pursuit of the highest offices came at a time when diversity had become the dominant ethos. His achievement is his and of his times. He is not a black politician, someone who wins office in a predominantly black neighbourhood and principally tends to the needs of the black community. He is a dark-skinned man who leads a nation that has come to recognise its diversity.Obama’s victory is not, however, a victory over racism or social turmoil. The police will continue to discriminate against black drivers; bank officials will continue to snub black buyers in what are seen as white neighbourhoods. The petty insults and the meaningful discriminations will not be overcome when he swears the oath to office in January 2009. This does not lessen his ascent, but only sharpens its monumental nature: he won the election despite the persistence of structural racism.
Obama’s agenda Shortly after winning the election, Obama named his transition team. Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who worked in the Clinton White House, will be Obama’s Chief of Staff. With a reputation for hard-nosed partisanship, Emanuel comes to the team with a commitment to pragmatic, right-of-centre politics (and an unhealthy closeness to Israel). In his early statements, Emanuel tried to ratchet down the campaign’s rhetoric, talking about doing what “you get elected to do”. The issues he wants on the table are those that have bipartisan support, such as children’s health care and stem-cell research. Neither of these is bold. This is along the grain of what many in the Democratic establishment have begun to say. Democratic leaders such as Harold Ickes point out that “the country remains very evenly divided”, so Democrats must govern with those who did not vote for them in mind. The transition team is headed by Bill Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff, John Podesta, now head of the Centre for American Progress. Podesta has brought on several people from the Centre’s orbit, including Sonal Shah, an Indian American who has on occasion participated in events organised by Hindutva groups (she has since said that “my personal politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] or any such organisation,” although this does not answer why she has participated in their activities).Apart from the policy wonks, there are the corporate figures, many of whom raised funds for Obama. These are not the giants of the corporate world, but they are nonetheless from finance, real estate and insurance (people like Citigroup’s Michael Froman, Vestar Capital Partner’s Federico Pena and Rock Creek Ventures’ Julius Genachowski). There are also a slate of centrist Democrats, people such as Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and former Clinton official Carol Browner. Obama has also brought in Democratic veterans such as Sam Nunn and Warren Christopher to lead the transition into the Defence and State departments respectively.
Nothing in this transition team resonates with Obama’s slogan, “change we can believe in”. The personnel, at any rate, seem to be more of the same. This is why Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman used his perch at The New York Times to urge Obama to have the “good sense to ignore this advice… this year’s presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies – and the progressive philosophy won.”
Obama could face a revolt within the activist base if he does not move swiftly on some of its issues. He has indicated that he will use his executive powers to reverse a series of Bush measures, such as the restriction of U.S. aid to global outfits that teach safe sex or provide abortions.
In addition, Obama has signalled that he will begin a process to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, as well as reverse many of the policies of the war on terror that go against the Geneva Conventions. Finally, Obama will move against the Bureau of Land Management’s policy to open about 360,000 acres (14,400 hectares) of land for oil and gas drilling. These are significant gestures that would reverse parts of the Bush agenda. They are also red meat for the activist base.
For many, the Obama victory remains a “people’s victory”. The desire for change awakened by his campaign remains alive and it will make too many concessions to the establishment difficult to stomach. Obama is aware of this. In his victory speech, he tempered the emotions with a cautionary note. “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”