Will the current conditions lead to bold and creative policies from this gifted leader?
With its recent election of Barack Obama, the United States has torn down cultural barriers and shifted away from President Bush and the Republicans. While this may be cause for rejoicing, the author reminds that Obama is a cautious and center-left politician, poised to assume office with the nation in the midst of a great financial crisis and embroiled in multiple wars overseas.
(From Cambridge, Massachusetts) EVEN THOUGH WE WERE EXPECTING it, the huge wave that crashed onto our political shores on Tuesday has left most political analysts -including this one- a little stunned. The emotional power of Barack Obama’s triumph is so strong that it hinders clear-eyed prognostication. Yet there is no doubt that Obama’s decisive victory, coupled with the large Democratic gains in Congress, has transformed our political -and policy- landscape at a critical juncture, both domestically and internationally.
A MONUMENTAL SHIFT
Surely, the election’s most obvious significance “The regional and ethnic political map of the United States has changed, perhaps permanently, in ways that will create long-lasting pressure for greater social equality” is that the United States has elected an African American president less than fifty years after the final racial barriers to voting were demolished. Exactly what this will do for the well-being of poor African Americans is unclear (and there are many reasons not to be too optimistic on that front), but what Obama’s election certainly does represent and reinforce is a cultural shift, a softening of boundaries and a celebration of diversity that will reverberate throughout much of American society.
Obama’s victory was due in part to an enormous electoral turnout by African Americans (who always had the potential to transform the politics of key southern states, like North Carolina and Virginia) and to his receiving roughly two-thirds of the votes of Hispanics, a rapidly growing segment of the electorate. Yet most of Obama’s votes (61 percent) came from whites, even if a slight majority of white voters preferred McCain. The regional and ethnic political map of the United States has changed, perhaps permanently, in ways that will create long-lasting pressure for greater social equality.
Just as importantly, Obama’s election is a repudiation of President Bush and his party. It is a rejection of the tax policies that have redistributed income from the working class to the wealthy. It is a rejection of the fierce ideological embrace of free markets that left our financial (and other) markets unregulated and vulnerable to disaster. “Obama and his advisors are well aware that his election provides an opportunity to restore the standing of the United States in the eyes of leaders and peoples around the world” It is a rejection of unilateralism and an over-reliance on military means in foreign policy. It is a rejection of the Bush administration’s efforts to erode the strong protections of civil liberties that have long been a virtue of American institutions. It is a rejection of the Republican insistence that government itself is the source of most of America’s problems.
Domestically, Obama’s election will mean a more active State promoting more progressive social policies, in both large and small ways. The President-elect has, for example, committed himself to supporting a new federal law that will make it easier for workers to unionize. He will press for legislation that will provide health insurance for the fifty million Americans who currently lack such coverage. Over the next four years, Obama will also have the opportunity to appoint at least two new justices to the Supreme Court, and in so doing, check the Court’s conservative drift.
Internationally, Obama and his advisors are well aware that his election provides an opportunity to restore the standing of the United States in the eyes of leaders and peoples around the world; he will surely seize that opportunity, both symbolically and by changing policies regarding human rights, trade, and the environment. Almost certainly, he will consult with foreign leaders more frequently -and more authentically- than has been the recent norm.
CENTER-LEFT AND CAUTIOUS
All of that said, the policy implications ought not be exaggerated. Although Republicans have accused him of being a socialist, he is not; nor is he a social democrat, as Europeans or Brazilians understand the term. “The threat of another terrorist attack on the United States will not disappear just because President Bush has left office” Obama is a man of the center-left, not the left; he appears to be cautious by temperament, and a conciliator by habit and training.
The new president will, moreover, face enormous constraints, given the state of the nation and the world as he assumes office. The American economy is sinking into a serious recession that will seriously restrict the development of new domestic programs, and he has few tools with which to combat it. American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, engaged in wars that Obama cannot end simply by declaring his desire to do so. The threat of another terrorist attack on the United States will not disappear just because President Bush has left office.
Indeed, much remains unpredictable as this immensely gifted, thoughtful leader takes office and begins to grapple with crises and dilemmas that are not of his own making. We might remember that Franklin Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal and presidential icon of American liberalism, was not a New Deal liberal when he first took office. In fact, he was a centrist, an advocate of balanced budgets, and often perceived as too cautious. Yet historical conditions led him to adopt bold and creative policies that had positive impacts for many decades. Obama’s promise, in the end, is that he may well be able to do the same for our time.