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After Barack Obama’s historic victory in the U.S. Presidential election, there are two questions on everyone’s mind: (1) how did this happen?; and (2) what does it mean?
The first question is now largely a matter for historians, journalists, and political scientists to debate. Since I’m an historian who teaches communications at a school of public policy, let me take a stab at it.
It’s important to afford Senator Obama’s victory the weight it deserves as an unprecedented moment in American history. After all, this is a man—a young man, as both his Democratic and Republican opponents have been quick to point out—who not only defeated the much-vaunted Clinton machine, but who then also ran an even more disciplined, successful campaign against a respected war hero. Obama’s meteoric rise from fresh-faced Senate candidate in 2004 to President-elect four years later is the most remarkable story in modern American political history—all the more remarkable because he is the first black President in a nation born of slavery and still burdened by race and racism. Make no mistake: Barack Obama has changed American politics.
There are several key factors that led to Obama’s victory. The first was the campaign itself. Applying the skills he learned as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama ran a vigorous grassroots campaign, mobilizing millions of people to participate in the democratic process, and adding millions of new voters to the rolls. From start to finish, this was a “bottom up” affair, having much more in common with social movements than traditional political campaigns. Its success had many dimensions—record-breaking fund raising, a robust Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort, an effective caucus strategy—but it was his creative use of new media that provided the central catalyst for all of these things. What Howard Dean started in 2004, Barack Obama perfected in 2008. In addition to its highly interactive and content-rich web site, and its relentlessly efficient use of the Internet for fund raising, Obama’s communications team made brilliant use of blogs, YouTube, and text messaging. This not only excited young people, it created new imagined communities across generations and geographies. In this sense, Obama’s was the first post-modern, 21st century campaign.
The second reason for Obama’s victory has to do with the fact that the campaign’s approach dovetailed nicely with the Democratic Party’s 50-state strategy under Chairman Howard Dean. From the very beginning of the 2008 election season, both Dean and Obama were adamant about “competing in all fifty states.” They sought to change the electoral map by launching serious challenges in places the Republican Party has dominated for years—namely, the interior West (states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico) and the South (Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia). This worked remarkably well: Democrats were competitive in many of these contests, ultimately helping Obama break the Republican stranglehold on the South. This is doubly significant because Republican domination of this region dates back to the 1960s, when racist Southern pols abandoned the Democratic Party following Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights. That the first black President achieved his victory by boldly challenging America’s longstanding politics of racist regionalism is perhaps the most delicious triumph of this political season.
It’s hard to deny the fact that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party put up a strong fight this year—a welcome departure from recent lackluster efforts. But there was a third crucial factor that contributed to their success: widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration. George W. Bush is the lamest duck in modern political history. By every measure, his Presidency has been an abject failure, an unprecedented imperial catastrophe marked by incompetence, intransigence, and a wholesale rejection of any recognizable standard of human integrity, ethics, or compassion. He will go down as the very worst President in the history of the United States—and that’s saying something. For his part, Barack Obama rode this tidal wave of angry dissatisfaction with an inspiring message of hope and chance. But he took it one step further by transforming what could have been just another vote against Bush into a vote for Obama. Democrats have waited an awfully long time for such inspiration.
So what does this mean?
In the 1980s, Republican President Ronald Reagan characterized his victory as “morning again in America.” Barack Obama’s win represents something even greater: a brand new day in America. For the last twenty months, Obama has withstood withering attacks—from both Democratic and Republican challengers—that he is “inexperienced,” “all style and no substance,” an “elitist,” a “radical” who “pals around with terrorists” and “angry” black ministers, a “socialist” hell-bent on “redistributing your wealth.” Given the more urgent issues that confront us—a global economic crisis, two wars of American invention, vast inequalities of wealth and education, and an undeniable environmental crisis—such silly slander has fallen on deaf ears. It seems the loud echo chamber of our divisive culture wars has finally been foreclosed. With characteristic calm and compassion, President-elect Obama has proven himself to be a serious leader for serious times. His victory represents a new kind of politics, the renewal of our nation’s hope and promise in the face of ancient fears and prejudices.
This new politics now has a governing mandate. For the first time since the early 1990s, a Democratic President will be able to work together with a Democratic Congress to push through ambitious legislative initiatives, including a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, universal health care, renewable energy initiatives to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, and creative solutions to the current economic crisis. Having put together a strong transition team, Obama will no doubt seek to replicate the far-reaching agendas of former Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. With Democrats in control of Congress, Republicans will have no choice but to work with them on key legislation. This will help bolster Obama’s claim to bipartisanship, as a leader who is willing and able to “reach across the aisle.”
The most intangible outcome of this election—and possibly the most important—is the effect Obama’s victory will have on the rest of the world. For the first time in its 232-year history, America has elected a President who looks and sounds like the rest of the world, a cosmopolitan man whose first impulse is to build bridges and seek consensus rather than foster divisions and foment conflict. As his summer trip to the Middle East and Europe indicated, Obama has the capacity to both challenge and engage leaders in the global arena. If the worst failure of the Bush Administration was the way it hastened a precipitous decline in America’s standing in the world, the best aspect of an Obama Administration will be the promise it holds for restoring the bonds of affection that have been broken, and constructing new alliances where none previously existed.
Senator Obama’s campaign slogan was “change we can believe in.” As President Obama gets ready for his first term, citizens from around the globe will no doubt welcome this change at least as much as the millions of Americans who voted for him. Together, perhaps, we can start to believe in America again. Yes we can.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Ph.D., is an historian of race and social movements who teaches communications at the Harvard Kennedy School. Since July 2007, he has served as a volunteer and advisor for Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign.