Three times they met, face to face. The 72 year-old military and political veteran, and the 46 year-old “rookie.” And after the final debate, there was little doubt in the minds of most of the sixty million Americans who watched which of the two contenders was the grown-up.
Throughout the years, I have lamented the length of the American presidential campaigns. Not this time. It took the full twenty-two months for a majority of the public to comprehend and appreciate the measure of this remarkable man who is about to become our forty-fourth president. And no doubt, there is much, much more to be learned about him.
Barack Obama was, we were told, devoid of executive experience, And yet, he was the CEO of a spectacularly successful half-billion dollar enterprise, the Democratic Presidential Campaign, that raised an operating fund of unprecedented size primarily from small donations of ordinary citizens.
His work as a “community organizer” on the south side of Chicago was derided at the Republican convention. Meanwhile, he was organizing a dedicated and disciplined community of supporters throughout the nation: thousands of paid staff members and tens of thousands of volunteers, operating phone banks, ringing the doorbells of millions of voters, and skillfully utilizing the new digital technologies of the internet, e-mail and cell phones.
In sum, the Barack Obama campaign displayed a brilliance of innovation, organization and execution that will be admired, studied, and imitated far into the future.
GOP campaign managers from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove validated the Leo Durocher rule: “Nice guys finish last,.” as they mercilessly pummeled Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry to inglorious defeat. Surely, it seemed, the only road to 21st century political victory was by “out-Roving Rove.” This was the “conventional wisdom” amongst the punditocracy, widely accepted by much of the public. I count myself among those who were convinced that Obama’s relative stature could only be enhanced by diminishing that of his rival, John McCain.
Barack Obama would have none of it. With an uncanny sense of the public mood, he correctly perceived that the American people had finally had enough of the politics of fear and hate. In the intervening four years since the “swift boat” attacks sank John Kerry’s candidacy, the public mood had shifted, though few media observers thereof failed to notice. Obama did notice, as he spoke of unity instead of division, of fair distribution of the nation’s wealth, of restoration of the infrastructure and the environment. Rather than despair, he proclaimed an “audacity of hope.”
And how well he spoke! As Edward R. Murrow said of Winston Churchill, Obama “mobilized the English language” with an eloquence not heard in political rhetoric since Adlai Stevenson and Robert F. Kennedy. His political rivals, first Hillary Clinton, then Sarah Palin and John McCain, mocked his gift with words. To no avail. After eight years of George Bush’s losing struggle with the mother tongue, it appears that the American public no longer regards clarity and command of the English language as a disqualification for leadership,
Gone too is “share-a-beer-with” “likeability” as an essential political asset, and “elitism” as a political liability. “Smart” is back and competence counts. Rarely did Obama’s advocates explicitly mention his intellect, his education, or his temperament, and Obama himself, never. Instead he displayed these qualities in the course of his campaign. It was enough. His even temperament (“no drama Obama”) throughout the inevitable crises of a hard-fought campaign, brings to mind the opening line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” The public took note of his calm and steady demeanor, and apparently concluded that this was just the sort of self-command that they would like to see in a commander-in-chief.
Today, a week after the presidential election, it is easy to overlook the extraordinary accomplishment of this self-described “skinny guy with a funny name.” Almost two years ago, Barack Obama, son of an African father and a white American mother, announced his candidacy for the presidency of a country that has elected only three post-reconstruction black senators, two black governors, and never a black president or vice-president. He was to compete with the Clinton organization that successfully engineered two presidential campaigns, and which was well on its way to accomplishing another victory for Hillary Clinton. He was dealing with a hostile corporate media, and a privatized election industry openly supportive of the opposition party.
It was as if he were entering a marathon race, ten kilometers behind the starting line.
An “audacious hope” to be sure.
And yet, in ten weeks, he will be inaugurated as the forty-fourth President of the United States.
He was nobody’s protÃ©gÃ©. He selected an outstanding staff, but was fully in charge from Day One all the way through to his victory last week. This accomplishment can only be attributed to an individual of extraordinary intelligence, management skills, insight, initiative, and temperament. Also, of course, an abundance of good luck, a dismal record of abject failure by the administration that he succeeds, and woeful bungling on the part of the opposing candidate.
On January 20, Barack Obama will assume the presidency of a country that is divided, disgraced and destitute. Even so, it is a country that is hopeful, first of all because his inauguration will mark the end of eight years of plunder, lawlessness, and incompetence. But it will also mark the beginning of the administration of a talented and energetic young president, supported by a Congress under the firm control of his party, and with a substantial mandate from the public that elected him.
President Obama is certain to disappoint the liberals who supported him. He will be less progressive than we want him to be. However, liberals must also appreciate the fact that the President will often be less progressive than he wants to be. Politics, they say, is “the art of the possible,” and given the remaining influence of the regressives in the Congress, the courts, and the media, much of the liberal/progressive agenda is not possible; at least, not possible in the short-term.
When challenged by his supporters to carry out his campaign promises, Franklin Roosevelt replied: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." Obama succeeded in large part with the support of the progressives. After he takes office, he cannot successfully advance the liberal agenda without their support.
November 4, 2008 closes the first act of a continuing drama. We are now into Act II, as the struggle continues.
As I will elaborate in my next essay