A historic victory. A changed nation. Now, can Obama deliver?
He faces rough conditions, but the tone he's set gives him a good foundation.
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"If anything, conditions out there now are worse," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Sobering. And yet Obama will begin his presidency with a level of global support unrivalled since perhaps John F. Kennedy. A Gallup poll taken in 73 countries earlier this year found his support topped John McCain's by greater than 3 to 1. His personal history – his childhood years in Indonesia, his search for his African roots – makes him uniquely suited to spread America's message abroad. And his call for diplomacy before intervention stand in stark contrast to the combative unilateralism of the Bush years and offer an opportunity to lift America's sagging standing in the world.
His campaign has mobilized citizens in fresh and original ways. His fundraising – much reliant on millions of small donors – shattered records. His get-out-the-vote campaign precipitated the highest level of early voters ever. His reach extended to all regions of the country. And though it's not official yet, evidence suggests overall voter turnout was the best in generations.
Obama's presidency will depend on many factors outside his control. But it will also depend on the tone he sets. On that score, he already has built a foundation of reaching out to the other side – a side that suddenly feels itself diminished. As Obama has repeatedly said, it's not about red states or blue states but about the United States of America.
"If he can change the political culture of this country, then he's changing the world for his children," says Michael Brown, another Emerson colleague.
In his victory speech, Obama began to launch that change with a call for service and sacrifice to help others in these hard economic times. Perhaps a new Civilian Volunteer Corps could provide such assistance, and serve as an immediate symbol of Obama's call for governance that bubbles up rather than being handed down.
For a quarter century, Americans have heard that government is the problem, not the solution. Obama has yet to turn that perception, yet to crystallize that solution. But he has set a tone that improves his odds of doing both. He has also shown his toughness.
When Obama began his quest for the presidency almost two years ago, he faced nearly insurmountable hurdles, starting with the legendary Clinton machine. He cleared every one. Throughout the campaign, he withstood a barrage of labels – Marxist, Muslim, pal of terrorists – and emerged stronger, more determined, undeterred in his calls for unity.
An even greater test, however, lies squarely ahead: converting the call for change to reality in very shaky economic times.