The Obama victory: What does it mean?

November 05, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Sen. Barack Obama has been elected the 44th president of the United States. It is worth pausing a moment just to digest that reality.

A very liberal, 47-year-old rookie senator with no military background - who is not only black but has a last name eerily similar to the man who masterminded the 9/11 attacks and a middle name identical to that of the man whose country we foolishly invaded in response to those attacks - is about to assume the nation's highest elected office. Three years ago, an aspiring screenwriter peddling a script with this story line would have been laughed out of every studio in Hollywood.

But rub your eyes and cue "Hail to the Chief," for here he comes: President Barack Hussein Obama.

What does Mr. Obama's victory mean?

It means that America has shown the world yet again it is capable of the improbable, the transformational: A majority-white country has elected a nonwhite president. Having traveled this year to speak about our elections in a diverse quartet of countries - Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and South Africa - I can assure you that people in all four were both rooting overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama and fully convinced the American people were incapable of electing him because of his race.

Putting identity politics aside, Mr. Obama's election also signals that America is poised for a long-overdue leftward correction to the feckless policies and reckless politics prosecuted by the modern conservative movement. To see that, compare the two finalists from both parties in this year's presidential race with those from eight years ago.

In 2000, the Republicans chose the conservative George W. Bush over John McCain, and the Democrats chose the (then, at least) more conservative Al Gore over Bill Bradley. Though the popular vote went the other way, in the general election, Americans took the more base-oriented Republican over the more centrist Democrat.

This year witnessed the inverse: Democrats narrowly opted for the more liberal Mr. Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton, while Republicans opted for the more liberal Mr. McCain over Mike Huckabee, among others. But this time, the public seems likely to choose the base-oriented Democrat over the Republican centrist, thereby propelling the Democrats to what should be their fourth national popular vote victory in the past five presidential cycles.

Much of the thanks for this leftward shift is owed to Mr. Bush, who has managed in just eight years to shred the national Republican Party, destroy America's global reputation, bankrupt the treasury, stagnate wages, permit a major American city to drown, start but not finish two wars, and undermine public confidence in our national government via the incessant use of backdoor power grabs and public misinformation.

The wreckage left by Mr. Bush also suggests the painful realities of a putative Obama administration.

Despite Mr. Obama's oft-repeated argument that Mr. McCain would constitute Mr. Bush's third term, the fact is that this year's winner was always doomed to inherit so many paralyzing and intractable problems that the next four years will be defined largely by the previous eight. All the talk of hope and change aside, Mr. Obama will need a second term if he hopes to change America by way of an affirmative agenda.

Team McCain staffers were fond of mocking Mr. Obama as "The One." Thanks to the myopia of the current president and skulduggery of his vice presidential sidekick, who have damaged the presidency and trampled on the Constitution, the mundane truth is Mr. Obama's presidential task list will be less that of a messiah than a Mr. Fix-it.

Still, these are times worthy of change, demanding of hope. The United States always shows its truest grit when the days are darkest, which is to say right before the dawning of a new morning in America - a morning that arrived today.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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