Some Thoughts on the Election

7 Nov

As Melissa mentioned, this past Wednesday I was invited to provide some post-election analysis at a lunch hosted by the US Ambassador at her residence for 50 Egyptian VIPs. It was quite an assemblage of A-list Egyptians — including leaders from government, business, media, civil society, etc. The event was running late, so I considered ditching my prepared remarks in the interest of time, but I went ahead with them anyhow, and am glad I did so. People paid rapt attention, and several asked if they could receive copies. The embassy staff gushed, and said they’d love to have me speak at other events. My speech wasn’t a masterpiece by any stretch — I wrote it from 7-10am after staying up all night watching election returns, and I don’t think it includes anything that other people haven’t already said — but I guess it beats what they usually hear from bureaucrats.

I’ve included my remarks below, for anyone who’s interested:

Madame Ambassador, distinguished guests, it is my honor to be with you today, and to say a few words reflecting on the American presidential election.

I’m a historian by training -– and would probably be expelled from the profession if anyone knew I was speaking about something that happened just hours ago.

With that said, this truly is a historic election. That phrase gets used a lot, and is usually overused and exaggerated, but it is hard to overstate the importance and significance of what happened in America over the past few hours.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, he included the famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is no secret that for most of America’s history, the nation lived a hypocritical creed that afforded equality to whites but not to non-whites. If anything was self-evident, it was that the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were truly guaranteed only to a portion of America’s citizens. We have witnessed in the past few hours a nation living up to its greatest and highest ideals. It is a profound and great moment for all Americans, and a watershed in human history.

Forty-five years ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before a crowd of 250,000 Americans who had come to Washington DC to march for freedom, he observed that America had given non-whites “a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” But he refused “to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt . . . that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity” in the United States. Reverend King outlined his dream, “that one day [America would] rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . ‘that all men are created equal.’” He had a dream that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners [would] be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He had a dream that one day his “four little children [would] live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He had a dream that one day, “little black boys and black girls [would] be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” When Americans wake up this morning, they will realize that the dream is beginning to look like reality.

Of course, President-elect Obama is not a messiah, and the deep problems facing America and the world are no different than they were 24 hours ago. He has to deal with a faltering world economy, an overburdened and over-expensive healthcare system, two unpopular wars where the end is not in sight, a global climate crisis, and the certainty of future terrorist attacks and the possibility that they will involve nuclear weapons. The challenges facing the impending Obama administration are among the greatest that any incoming presidency will have to wrestle with in all of American history. Because the list of obstacles is so long and the nature of so many of them is so deep, it is more than likely, as Obama himself conceded in his speech this morning, that they will not be fully addressed in one year or even one four-year term. Indeed, perhaps the greatest challenge that Obama will face is the stratospheric expectations that his supporters in the United States and around the world will have for him. It is inevitable that he will disappoint -– indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine a way in which he could live up to expectations, especially among those who hope for quick and dramatic solutions to what are in fact complex and deep-seated difficulties.

With that in mind, I want to briefly discuss three things: first, why and how Obama won this election, based on the very preliminary data we have; second, what happens now; and third, what it means for the future of American politics and society.

First, it should be recognized that conditions in the United States meant that it would have been very difficult for a Republican -– no matter who it was -– to win this presidential election. George W. Bush has some of the lowest approval ratings of any president since they began keeping track. Americans have mostly come to the conclusion that the War in Iraq should be ended, and they are not as riveted by the rhetoric (and perhaps reality) of the War on Terror as they were in 2004, when it helped propel Bush to a second term. And when the economy, which has not been doing well in recent years, took such a drastic downturn since this summer, precipitating a global financial crisis that threatens a depression with no parallel since the 1930s, it sealed the doom of the candidate running under the banner of the incumbent Republican Party. People will blame McCain for being either too conservative or not conservative enough, or they will point to the selection of Sarah Palin. But the fact is that of all the Republican candidates, McCain was probably best equipped for a serious run at the presidency this year, and Palin was neither going to win nor lose the election for him.

While John McCain would have had a hard time winning this election, especially in a political climate in which 57% of voters said the economy was their #1 issue, it was very possible that Obama could have lost it. This is a fact we should not lose sight of -– yes, the Republicans lost the election, but more than anything, Obama won it. How did he do so? Much of it was his message, focusing so intently on the twin themes of hope and change. His charisma captured the imagination of voters, particularly those who had grown apathetic or cynical about the political process. This appeal was especially strong among young voters, who turned out in record numbers. And of course the policies that Obama made central to his platform resonated with the greater share of American voters. But I would submit that the real reason Obama won is because he ran one of the best organized campaign in US elections history. As noted in the New York Times yesterday, the innovation and creativity and organization of his campaign have already fundamentally changed the way in which campaigns will be waged in the future, in terms of how to reach voters, raise money, organize voters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage and withstand political attacks.

We may look back on this campaign and say that Obama won it, by and large, on the web. He used websites, blogs, YouTube, and the so-called “new media” to attract new voters, disseminate his message, raise money, and mobilize his followers. Obama raised more money than any candidate in American history, hundreds of millions of dollars ($150 million in September alone). Much of this was donated by ordinary people giving $25 or $100, rather than the wealthy and corporate donors that politicians have typically relied upon. This allowed him to spend money with reckless abandon in the closing weeks of the campaign; he bought a 30-minute primetime spot on seven national television networks last week, and he outspent the McCain campaign 4 to 1 on TV ads in Pennsylvania -– a state that McCain invested heavily in. Furthermore, with people in the 20s more likely to get their news from the internet than traditional television, radio, and print sources, Obama’s complete domination of the web helped him capture (according to preliminary results) a remarkable 66% of the voters between the ages of 18-29. The Obama website also featured a number of innovative features that allowed ordinary people to participate in the campaign, and become invested in the democratic process, through phone calls and door-to-door visits.

In addition to his unprecedented web presence, Obama also did it the old-fashioned way, establishing field offices in cities and towns around the country, often penetrating deep into territory that had been reliably Republican for decades and had voted for Bush by wide margins in the last two elections. This was partly a function of his decided financial advantage over the Republicans –- a first in modern elections -– but also because the extended primary campaign, against a more prominent and well-established opponent in Hillary Clinton, forced him to organize early and thoroughly. For instance, at the beginning of October, Obama had organized 39 field offices in the usually reliably Republican state of Indiana, while McCain had exactly zero. Indiana, not coincidentally, went for Obama this time, this in a state that President Bush won by over a half million votes just four years ago.

So now that Obama forged this remarkably innovative and successful campaign, what does he do now that he has to get down to the more difficult task of governance? While people in this room might hope that he immediately turns his attention to foreign policy and especially the Middle East, that simply is not going to happen. In an interview with CNN last week, he outlined his top five priorities upon coming to office, in order:
1. Stabilize the financial system
2. Energy independence
3. Healthcare reform
4. Tax reform, including tax cuts for the middle class
5. Reforming the education system

Notice there is absolutely no mention there of foreign policy. Of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will occupy his attention from day one. I am confident he will try to keep his promise to withdraw the majority of US troops from Iraq within sixteen months of assuming the presidency, but as is often the case when moving from the ideal to the real, he will be forced to respond and adapt to circumstances rather than shape them the way he might like.

The thing to watch is how proactive the Obama administration will be in its first 100 days, both in terms of what it seeks to do and what it actually accomplishes in doing. Obama will come into office with the great fortune of having substantial, though not invulnerable, Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. His overwhelming win, especially in terms of electoral votes, gives him something of a mandate. Will President-elect Obama be able to push through a sweeping legislative agenda on par with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? Or will the agenda be more modest, either through pragmatism, temperament, or necessity?

In many ways, Obama’s historic peers are the aforementioned Roosevelt and the next standard bearer of the Democratic Party, John F. Kennedy. Both were charming, articulate, and widely popular, though Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by only a hair in the 1960 election. The key similarity between Roosevelt, Kennedy, and now Obama, is that they are transformative political figures who shape not just the nation’s policies but also its psychology. Historians still debate as to whether or not Roosevelt and Kennedy were in fact good, effective presidents. But they succeeded in capturing the imagination of an entire generation, and giving the nation new meaning and hope. At this admittedly very premature moment, it seems that Obama may be cut from the same cloth. Roosevelt’s vision and initiative helped reformulate and realign American politics, much as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. In future decades, will we look back on 2008 as the dawn of the Age of Obama? At this point it is hard to imagine how to even outline that chapter of American history, but the results from yesterday -– in which Obama won most demographics -– seem to suggest the opening words of how that chapter might be framed.

So in conclusion, where does yesterday’s election leave us? What does it mean for the future of America? I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a new era in American politics, one in which a new generation of voters will bring their concerns to the table, and one in which the concerns of a previous generation of voters –- most notably race -– will begin to diminish in importance. Consider this: in exit polls, age was cited as a significant factor for voters more than twice as frequently as was race. And Obama polled almost exactly the same among those voters who said that race was important as well as those who said it was not. As a historian of race relations, I understand as well as anyone how intricately entwined racism is in the DNA of American culture. But I believe that the rising generation of American young people -– the 66% who gave Obama their votes -– is increasingly colorblind, especially when it comes to personal relationships. They are also largely blind to the ways that racism is a continuing structural reality in America, but the shift along personal lines is an important step toward a deeper transformation. Racism and discrimination continue to exist and even thrive in America, with the Arab and Muslim populations now perhaps the greatest victims of widespread fear and marginalization. But it is not insignificant that for the first time in history, three of the four names at the top of the ballot yesterday were not the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) that have dominated American political culture for more than two centuries: one was black, one was Catholic, and one was a woman.

Time will tell, but I believe this election both stems from and will further propel a changing landscape in American politics. More significantly, it is another battle won in the nonviolent revolution that has swept across America, in fits and starts, over the past century. This revolution seeks to finish the work of the first revolution against colonialism and the second revolution against slavery. This continuing revolution struggles for the realization of the promise stated by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and Barack Obama this morning, “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” How far and how fast the revolution proceeds is now the great question to be answered by this new presidential administration.

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8 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the Election”

  1. Dre November 7, 2008 at 8:17 pm #

    Bravo.

    Love,

    Mom

  2. April November 7, 2008 at 11:00 pm #

    Looks like Dre gave you a standing ovation. I don’t think she does that for just anyone. I as well give you a standing ovation. Well done!

  3. Yvette November 8, 2008 at 12:41 am #

    Hey ya’ll! I just read through October and November posts. Finn is a fabulous gnome, now all you have to do is tweek the costume just a bit and you’ll have a great elf for Christmas pictures!

    The pictures of “painting the town red” are great. What beautiful children. The portrait layout of the kids and the paint brush is very National Geographic.

    Give Finn lots of kisses for us!
    love,

    Aunt Yvette

  4. Luisa & Javy November 8, 2008 at 3:54 am #

    Well done Patrick. Well done.

  5. Chad November 8, 2008 at 9:14 am #

    great speech. I never imagined that the most insightful political analysis on America I would hear this election season would come from an Egyptian.

  6. Uncle Joel November 11, 2008 at 7:00 pm #

    AWESOME SPEECH PATRICK!! I am proud to call you my nephew.

  7. Casey November 17, 2008 at 7:26 pm #

    Hmm.. for some reason I am not surprised that 1. they were running late, or 2. you did a great job!

  8. Shabnam November 24, 2008 at 2:45 pm #

    Excellent Patrick. I am so proud of you too 🙂

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