The meaning of Obama

President-elect Obama speaking in Grant Park last night.
REUTERS/Jason Reed
President-elect Obama speaking in Grant Park last night.

Right quick, let’s tamp down that title. I don’t claim to know the meaning of Barack Obama nor should anyone else. His presidency will carve out that meaning and historians will find something to argue about over it for a hundred years.

But an extraordinary moment has just occurred, with the election of Obama at its core. So let’s list and work through some of the meanings and potential meanings of the man and the moment, starting with the most obvious.

The race thing
I know you noticed, but we’ve just elected the first African-American president of the United States. I did not expect to see this occur in my lifetime. Did you?

Does it mean that the United States is no longer a racist society? Of course not. The exit polls indicate that Obama lost the overall white votes by 55-43 (not to suggest in any way that voting for John McCain is a racist act. It isn’t. Just that this is not a case of white voters electing an African-American. In fact, no Democratic candidate in recent history has won the majority of white votes.) The inauguration of Obama will turn the U.S. Senate back into a club with no black members (although there is talk that Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. will take Obama’s place.)

But does it mean that we are not as racist as we thought we were? I think it does. Race is an important part of our identities. Identity is one of the keys to voter choice. Most voters are more comfortable voting for a candidate with whom they share key elements of identity. But tens of millions of white voters across all states decided that voting for change, hope and even a vision of a post-racial America were more important than voting for a candidate who shared their pigmentation. That’s progress.

The experience of seeing an African-American as president is going to be big. If it is a good experience it’s possible that we will make rapid progress toward Dr. King’s vision. It’s also stirring to contemplate the impact it might have on black boys and girls to grow up with Obama in the Oval Office.

The Obama presidency will change how the world looks at us. In precincts where the United States is disliked, the charge of racism is an important indictment. It will be harder to cling to a caricature of U.S. race relations after this.

Obama himself has gone to pains not to run as “the black candidate” and he will try not to govern as “the black president.” For example, while he favors the continuation of affirmative action, he told George Stephanopoulos in May that when his daughters apply to college they “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.” Translation, affirmative doesn’t have to be all about race.

Before leaving the topic of race, please note that Sen. John McCain, to his considerable honor and credit and under pressure from some Republican hardball advocates, made a decision not to use the controversial statements of Obama’s long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in his advertising. Those who accused McCain of stooping to Rove-ian tactics should take note of this.

The realignment thing
There’s going to be a lot of talk about Obama’s victory remaking the political map and ushering in a new era of Democratic domination. A quick look at history warns us to be cautious. Bigger landslides than this have turned out to be one-time things. The last two Democratic landslides (Clinton over Dole in 1996, LBJ over Goldwater in 1964) were followed in the very next election by a Republican victory.

The electoral map was virtually frozen over the previous two cycles. (Bush carried 30 states against Gore in 2000, then carried 29 of the same states — plus two more — against Kerry in 2004, leading to an ahistoric view of the stability of redness and blueness by state.) Obama destroyed that impression by carrying 10 states (perhaps, still counting some close ones as I write this) that Bush had won in 2004 while holding every single state that Kerry and Gore had carried.

Does that mean that Colorado, Virginia and Indiana (perhaps) are now blue states? Hardly. Like most of the observations in this post, a great deal will depend on how the country feels about Obama after he’s been president for four years.

The nature of Obama’s coalition, however, does create at least the possibility that he has put together a coalition with growth potential, basically because of his strength among young voters and Hispanics. According to exit polls, Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, higher than normal for a Republican. Bush and Karl Rove courted Hispanics hard, in part because they are the fastest growing demographic group in the country.

But last night, according to exit polls, Obama beat McCain among Hispanics by 66-31 percent. If Democrats continue to get that level of support from the fastest growing group, it will complicate Republican aspirations to a comeback. (But, of course, please note, if the Hispanic split can move that much over one cycle, it can move in the other direction next cycle.)

The youth vote question is different. Political scientists tell me that most people forge a partisan identity in early adulthood that they maintain for life. (Of course, some people change parties, but most do not.)  The early exit polls showed that first-time voters were breaking by a staggering 72-27 in favor of Obama. The only age group that McCain carried was the over 65. To be blunt, the latter group is wasting political asset, while the Obama election may have created a great many new Democrats who will be in the electorate for many decades.

The change thing, the UnBush thing, the fireside chat thing
To a significant degree, Obama has won by making himself the personification of change in a year when almost everything about the status quo was discredited, most especially the current occupant of the White House.

When I asked Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier for his “meaning of Obama’s victory,” he said it isn’t fundamentally about Obama: “It is all about George W. Bush and the GOP brand.  It is a rejection of that.”

He’s right of course. Republicans all over the country, not least John McCain, lost because they were tied to Bush or Bush’s policies. This may well have happened if the Dems had nominated any of their candidates, as long as that person could present themselves as the UnBush.

Said Schier: “The meaning of Obama is unknown beyond ‘change,’ and the meaning will be discovered in the coming months as the public discovers who Obama is and how the Democrats actually govern.”

But being the UnBush is a powerful thing at the moment, and could influence the realignment question, depending on how long Bush’s reputation remains in the toilet.

I am reminded of the only exchange I ever had with George Will. It was in 2007 when he stopped by the Strib (where I still worked). I asked him how deep and how long-lasting would be the damage Bush had done to the Republican brand. He replied with an anecdote about his first campaign, in 1964. He was campaigning for Barry Goldwater and asked an elderly gentleman whom he planned to support. “Not Goldwater,” the old man said. “Why not?” young Will inquired. Replied the old gent: “Because I didn’t like Herbert Hoover.”

Lately, I’ve heard pundits saying that whoever wins the election will be a one termer, because the term will be served under the weight of the dismal economic situation, with no expectation of things getting better soon. Maybe so. Maybe the meaning of Obama will be one dismal term and out. But the Will-Goldwater-Hoover story reminds me that Franklin D. Roosevelt came to office in 1932, in a landslide, basically because he was the UnHoover. FDR inherited an even worse economic mess than the current one (with the advantage, which Obama will share, that his predecessor’s fingerprints were all over it).

FDR presided over four more years of continuing economic problems. But he won reelection by an even bigger landslide, one of the biggest of all landslides, apparently because he was still the unHoover and because he managed to convince Americans that he felt their pain and was trying everything he could think of to help.

Obama is a tad Rooseveltian in his rhetorical skill. And, so far, he has succeeded, according to those annoying poll questions, in persuading most Americans that he understands and cares about their problems. We’ll see if that continues when Obama is actually sitting in the Oval Office, assuming the economic problems continue.

The policy thing
What is the meaning of Obama for policy? None of his major policy proposals are particularly original. He has put together a team of experienced advisers, many drawn from the Clinton administration. Despite efforts by the McCain campaign to portray Obama as the most liberal senator (this was based on his National Journal ratings for one particular year, and those ratings, like most such, have their vagaries) Obama ran as more of a middle-of-the-road liberal.

On health care, for example, Obama did not propose a single-payer system (which is the preferred approach of the further left liberals) and even took considerable heat from Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries for not going far enough to ensure that every American will have health insurance.

Obama’s Iraq troop withdrawal plan was too slow for the real lefties and left too many troops still in Iraq for training and special operations. His tax proposals fell on only the top 2 per cent or so of households and sought only to allow their marginal rate to rise a few percentage points to where they stood in the Clinton era. He claimed — although neutral budget experts said he fell short of this — to pay for all his new spending ideas with either spending cuts or new revenues.

His policies seem to be roughly in the middle of the Democratic spectrum, and he will have a lot of Democrats in the House and Senate to work with him although, at this writing (still counting in a couple of Senate races), it appears likely the Dems will fall short of the 60-40 filibuster-proof majority.

But Obama has also tried to strike a note of post-partisanship, a tone for which many Americans are pining. I don’t know if it’s possible, but it wasn’t possible with Bush and Cheney still in the picture. And it won’t happen under Obama either if he tries to make major changes with only Dem votes.

Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey Institute tells me that Obama cannot count on his win as providing a mandate for his policies. The polling, which Jacobs interprets masterfully, tells him that the public wants an end to deadlock, and it wants change — defined as something different than whatever Bush was pushing. But that doesn’t mean the public understands and wants the particular policy choices that Obama made when he put together his program.

U of M political scientist Kathryn Pearson has been telling me for some time that Obama needs to start his major policy initiatives with bipartisanship. Make sure the Dem congressional leaders and some Republicans are in the room at the outset of, let’s say, the big health care proposal that is undoubtedly coming. Bill Clinton came to office with Dem majorities in both houses and, supposedly, a mandate to create a universal health care program. It failed because he didn’t get enough buy-in from enough groups.

The Iraq thing, the calmness thing, the poetry-prose thing
My own enthusiasm for Obama started on the day I read his 2002 Iraq war speech. It was January of 2007 and someone sent me a link to the full speech. I sent it around to friends and several of them asked me to check and make sure this was real. It looked too prescient to have been given in 2002, when most people were for the war. But it was legit, and Obama nailed it.

The speech became Exhibit A for Obama’s claim that even if he didn’t have as much experience as some of his opponents, he had demonstrated the judgment. It was true then and it’s true now. Over time, I began to notice that there really wasn’t an Exhibit B. I also came to my senses and realized that many (but not most) others were saying similar things during the run-up to the war.

But the speech is what made Obama the darling of the peaceniks in the contest against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom had voted for the war. And then, his opponent in the general election was John McCain, who made his own path to the nomination out of the argument that he had been right about the surge. It turned out that being right about a tactic to make the best of a war that was a mistake wasn’t as important as recognizing the mistake before it began.

And then, of course, the economy blew away the Iraq war as an issue and Obama’s victory was all but assured. His steadiness during the crisis seemed like a better closing argument than anything he could say or do, seeming to assure the remaining doubters that he was ready for the job. And now he has won it and we will find out the meaning of Obama, in small bits, in the years ahead.

I had seven or 10 more chapters of this post (not sure, still counting) in mind when I started but it has to stop. I started writing Tuesday morning, in anticipation of Obama’s big win but I’m finishing now in the early morning hours. I took a break to listen to the speeches. McCain’s concession was very gracious. He’s a much better man than a lot of people allowed themselves to acknowledge over recent months, but he’s no orator.

Obama’s speech was elegant, lovely, touching (the 106-year-old woman voting in Atlanta was the nuts) and appropriate. But it was mostly the joy in the crowds that got me, made me want to tear up this whole piece and try to write some poetry about this remarkable moment. But then I remembered, I’m a prose guy. And I better go see if anyone won the Senate race. What think?

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by B Ftenberg on 11/05/2008 - 09:39 am.

    A couple of intertwined points.
    Identity. I think you’re right that people most often vote for the candidate they feel identifies with them the best. However, I think you’re understating the identification a lot of people feel with Obama, and perhaps specifically younger voters. This was a vote for the ideals we were raised with–ideals that, ironically, it looks like our Boomer parents had a more difficult time voting for. Be that as it may, the point that I think can’t be overlooked is that this election was about the America we think we can be, and not about “we said, they said” party politics.

    Meaning. The meaning of Obama is change, but change as understood more broadly than just policy and the UnBush. Bush and his advisors turned the American political process into something that very few of us are comfortable with anymore. In a “flat” world, we cannot operate in a bubble, we cannot strong-arm or bluff our way through problems, and we cannot stick our collective heads in the sand and say ‘what worked before will work again, you’ll see.’ Everyone talks about Obama’s mastery of new social media and how that helped him win. It probably did have an effect, but I think a lot of older media are missing the greater point it represents (at least to me): Obama is current and fluent with the realities of an increasingly networked and therefore transparent domestic electorate and international partners.

    I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself and points you made, but I think they are worth emphasizing a little more. This was a generational election–the first where it wasn’t about the Boomers. This was about the kind of (global) citizen Obama represents as it was about policy. Any further conclusions about the meaning of Obama as informed by what has come before needs to be tempered a little, I think, because the context of this election are so much different than before.

  2. Submitted by Eric Black on 11/05/2008 - 10:36 am.

    Excellent points, Bernt. The generational meaning of Obama was one of those chapters I didn’t write but should have. Obama the first post-boomer president is definitely part of his meaning (and, as a boomer, I welcome your generation to the arena. I’m not that crazy about what my generation has done with its moment.)

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/05/2008 - 11:53 am.

    How this plays out will depend on follow-through. As Eric points out, there has been a lot of talk. Now its time for action, and we will see if our next President can walk the walk. I think Eric is correct to point out the promised approach over the promised policies. I suspect critics will point to unkept policy promises; whether such criticism has traction will rest on whether he delivers on post-partisanship.

  4. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/05/2008 - 01:21 pm.

    Sorry, but this election was primarily about generational change. Roughly 45% of the electorate was born after the Voting Rights Act was passed, which is to say is of the Gen-X and Millenial generations.

    This effect accounts for ALL of the changes that you have noted. I have gone on at length on my blog about what generational change means for America; the implications for the future are far more vast than you are considering and will be with us from now on. The most important of which is a simple one: this election was not as much about *who* a President is as *what* a President is.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/05/2008 - 04:06 pm.

    “All about generational change?” I think perhaps partly generational, but as a 69-year-old white woman (and volunteer for Obama and other Dems), I think there’s more to “identifying” with another than being from the same age group.

    When I look at Obama, I see a person whose center is calm, a person who knows and is at peace with himself, a person who doesn’t seek approval from others but to help others — all others (the common good, a general rather than top-end-only prosperity, fairness and justice, peace for all rather than just “safety” for us).

    I don’t agree with all his policies, but I firmly believe he can be trusted to carry out his responsibilities with full respect for us, the Constitution and the rest of the world — with our “Yes We Can” help.

  6. Submitted by B Maginnis on 11/06/2008 - 10:30 am.

    Uh, Shelby Steele nailed it today in the LA Times.

    That is all.

  7. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 11/06/2008 - 12:26 pm.

    Well Eric, I think your sober analysis missed it this time. Maybe you should have tried the poetry.
    Did you see the spontaneous street party on the West Bank in Minneapolis? Or the overflow crowds at the Crowne Plaza in St. Paul? Or the news from the front of the White House, or in Harlem, or so many places around the world? I’ve been involved in politics since Stevenson’s campaign in ’56 and nothing has ever come close to this in electoral politics.

    The real meaning of the Obama campaign was not in the specifics of policy proposals but in the incredible organization and the sense of hope and purpose brought to a movement for change. It was a campaign founded on the principle that real change comes from the ground up. From another source that might seem hollow rhetoric or an empty aspiration, but the experience of working on this campaign says otherwise.

    The most critical factor in the coming months will not be the appointments to cabinet positions but the efforts to keep that movement and engagement alive. Obama promised us that in an email to all organizers and volunteers before he took the stage in Grant Park.

    There will inevitably be compromises and disappointments from the Obama administration, but there will also be accountability and an engaged citizenry.

    Even those ‘low information’ voters who fell for the slanders about ‘terrorists and taxes and muslims and marxists’,will have to deal with the cognitive dissonance produced as their access to healthcare improves, the economy is righted from the ground up, and their children get a better education and aren’t deployed in repeated tours of duty in Irag.

    Let George Will search for an answer in the demographics — there is little comfort for him there and no substitute for a lack of new ideas. We the people have changed the country and with a positive sense of direction, have a lot of work to do.

  8. Submitted by B Ftenberg on 11/06/2008 - 01:41 pm.

    re: Shelby Steele

    I just read Steele’s Nov. 5 editorial in the LA Times, and I don’t think he nailed it at all. I think his analysis oversimplifies the bona fide racial cultural divide between white and black Americans, and simply doesn’t even consider that this election was much more about categorically rejecting the values and principles of the previous eight years. To suggest that Obama won because white people needed proof that they weren’t racist is an incredibly short sighted and ill thought out argument from a writer of Steele’s stature.

    And in terms of actualizing a ‘post-racial America’ as Steele puts it, I think Obama and his supporters are well on their way to doing it. Dr. King yearned for the day when we weren’t judged by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. This is what a post-racial America looks like. I voted for Obama because I believe in his ability to make informed decisions about tough issues, to represent the interests of the many and the minority, to actually engage in dialogue abroad and across parties, and most importantly because he represents what I think America can be: a place of promise, hope, liberty, and community.

    To say that this ‘post-racial America’ is a bargainer’s ploy (as Steele would have you believe) and inherently a view that is dependent on race is, to me anyways, simply confirmation of Steele’s unwillingness or inability to believe that a post-racial America is possible.

  9. Submitted by Norman Norman on 11/06/2008 - 02:07 pm.

    We have to add another less mentioned issue to this discussion: how will expectations of President-elect (P.E.) Obama’s ethnic support groups, specifically African-American and Latino, direct his policies? More importantly, how will members of those groups discipline themselves to support a governing administration, in contrast to a campaign? I believe people will understand that P.E.Obama cannot change the social wrongs of the past. He understands that trying to change the wrongs of the past directs energy, time and resources towards changing our memories of history. Instead, we need and must invest in the future or we will regress into living in the past. Less we forget, turning our backs on the future is exactly what we have been living through for the past eight years.

    We also must remember that President-elect Obama does not own nor can he control the attitudes people have about themselves and the world.

    Individuals will have to take responsibility for their attitudes. If they want to be passive, pessimistic, self-defeating, and with a constant need for dependency on others, they will not benefit from a changed America. The country has voted to move forward, but for those who want to stay behind, the country can neither afford to carry them along, nor wait for them. Of course, I am not talking about truly disabled individuals, nor the old, nor children. An underwriting message from November 4th: America is growing up and it is time for all Americans to grow up, whether they want to or not. It is time to get “real” with life and responsibilities.

  10. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/06/2008 - 04:56 pm.

    Food for thought.

    If he can truly change the vicious kill or be killed atmosphere in Washington he can stay as long as he likes, and do most anything he wants.

  11. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/07/2008 - 11:58 am.

    This is a fictional story:

    Down in one of those rare towns in the deep south with a huge black majority there had never been a white mayor since the days of Reconstruction.

    Jim, a white sharecropper who had lived there all his life, and was well known and liked by the whole community, decided to run for mayor this year.

    With the promise to “put our town on the map, and bring prosperity down to our level” he drew sizable groups to his town meetings, and support from the local press. Still, the expectation was that he did not really have a chance.

    Most of the whites, and many of the blacks voted for him. To the amazement of all, Jim did win, and the town celebrated its first white mayor in over 100 years.

    But the story does not end well: the major media got the story, and accused the town of racism for having elected a white mayor.

  12. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/07/2008 - 05:59 pm.

    Change I can believe in! Would the cabinet look any different if Hillary had won?

    http://www.dickmorris.com/blog/2008/11/07/obamas-change-back-to-the-democratic-washington-insiders/#more-485

    OBAMA’S ‘CHANGE’: BACK TO THE DEMOCRATIC WASHINGTON INSIDERS

  13. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/09/2008 - 12:05 am.

    This was the Big Easy Election. Obama promised to make it easy for you–racial absolution, free money, peace by appeasement. And you guys bought it wholesale.

  14. Submitted by Steve Mayer on 11/12/2008 - 04:16 pm.

    While Obama may have “lost the white vote,” it’s also the case that 60% of those who voted for him are white.

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