Obama’s new political era

Democratic control of Washington brings unity but also new demands.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
People come together at Tabernacle Baptist Church to worship on election night in Selma, Alabama, on Nov. 4.
Jeff Haynes/Reuters
US President-elect Sen. Barack Obama waved with his wife Michelle during the election night rally in Chicago.

Barack Obama’s historic election as America’s first black president has ushered in a new political era at a time of tremendous challenge, both at home and abroad.

President-elect Obama, a Democrat, will have expanded Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, affording him the opportunity to address the nation’s problems without the level of partisan gridlock that has hobbled his predecessors. Still, Republicans will remain a factor in Congress, especially in the Senate, where Democrats did not pick up enough seats to reach a filibuster-proof majority. The larger Democratic majority also means a more diverse caucus, whose wishes must be taken into account.

Hopes for the Obama administration are exceedingly high, from many corners of society.

“Expectations are tremendous: from whites, that we are entering a postracial America; from blacks, that he’ll be able to solve all the problems,” says Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland.

“He needs to put a lot of that in context.”

Indeed, Obama’s victory speech Tuesday night from Chicago’s Grant Park alluded to the pressing issues he has already been grappling with, in anticipation of possible victory. Foremost among them are the economic crisis and two foreign wars.

“The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep,” said Obama. “We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”

Obama’s governing style remains an open question. He has never run a state or city government or a business, though his successful presidential campaign – an intricate operation involving thousands of moving parts – may provide some clues.

Obama put together a cohesive team that settled on what proved to be a winning strategy and did not waver, or erupt in internal drama, in the face of setbacks. Obama’s cool demeanor makes him appear enigmatic to some. But at a time of profound challenge, his temperament worked to his benefit as voters considered their options.

“One thing about Obama is he’s ‘planful’ – he’s a planner,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “The economy will come first. There are a ton of mean problems ahead that will involve allocation of pain and could splinter the coalition.”

But in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration, a nation that has struggled with racial strife since its founding will also take stock of the historic import of Obama’s election. His victory touched Americans of all hues, but perhaps none more so than African-Americans who had personally experienced a time when blacks had little opportunity for advancement.

“I prayed for the day,” said James Bronson, who was born nearly 88 years ago on the wrong side of Jim Crow South Carolina and never dreamed he would live to see a black president in the White House.

News of Obama’s success left Mr. Bronson almost speechless. “I am very much satisfied,” he said.

It’s too soon to say whether the rise of Obama also signals a wholly new approach to government, much the way Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 gave rise to the New Deal. But Obama has signaled swift action. Even before his election, he had been working with the congressional leadership on an economic-recovery package that includes an extension of unemployment benefits and new spending on infrastructure. Obama has also promised to address Iraq on his first day in office. Healthcare reform remains central, but given the economic crisis, it is unclear how soon he can push for it.

Historian Robert Dallek calls Obama’s election both a reaction to the nation’s economic woes and a repudiation of President Bush’s administration.

“There is this passion for a shift,” he says. “One party wears out its welcome. The conservative movement has been in the saddle for quite a while. Now there’s an impulse to shift ground.”

As elections go, he adds, this one could be compared to 1960, when John F. Kennedy overcame concerns about his faith and became the first Roman Catholic president. The election of Roosevelt in 1932 also contains parallels to today, with a Democrat sweeping to power in the face of daunting economic challenges. Others raise the analogy of 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode his conservative movement to Washington, also promising hope and change.

Like Reagan’s campaign, Obama’s began as a movement – defeating the powerful political machine of Hillary Rodham Clinton on his way to the Democratic nomination – and managed to maintain that sense of youthful optimism all the way to Election Day. At age 47, Obama will be one of the youngest American presidents to take office; his young family provides another echo of Kennedy’s election.

Obama’s election also broke new ground in the mechanics of campaigning. His campaign used the Internet, e-mail, and social-networking sites as community-organizing tools more effectively than any campaign in history. On fundraising, Obama opted out of public financing – the first nominee to do so since the advent of the system in 1976 – and raised at least $600 million from more than 3 million donors, another feat that defied expectations.

But no aspect of Obama’s election is more compelling than his decisive toppling of the racial barrier to ultimate power in America. Mr. Walters of the University of Maryland sees Obama’s election as the culmination of a journey that began more than a century ago.

“You have to go back all the way to the 19th century, when Frederick Douglass’s name was put in nomination for the vice presidency of the United States by the Republican Party in 1882,” says Walters. “That’s when I start my analysis of the fact that presidential politics began to evolve in the strategy for African-Americans and [became] something to aspire to.”

Obama’s campaign was steeped in historical references. When he announced his candidacy in February 2007, he stood on the grounds of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech against slavery in 1858. Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president this year on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Two days after that, historians noted the 100th anniversary of the birth of former President Lyndon Johnson. It was in 1964 that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, signaling the end of racial segregation in America – and, ultimately, paving the way for Obama to run for president 44 years later. “It’s a Johnson moment, too,” says Mr. Dallek.

Obama’s postracial pitch was reinforced by his own heritage, with a black African father and white American mother. His childhood, spent mostly in Hawaii, included four years abroad in Indonesia, adding to his multicultural persona. As the new face of the United States, Obama represents a profound change to rest of the world.

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