On the cusp, a look back and a look ahead

Had a few things gone differently, we wouldn't be swearing in President Barack Obama next January, as it appears we will. Now what? He'll need to manage the agenda carefully.
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A weekend snapshot.

Had a few things gone differently, we wouldn't be swearing in President Barack Obama next January, as it appears we will. Now what? He'll need to manage the agenda carefully.

The McCain-Palin ticket will face a political tsunami over the next two weeks. The Obama-Biden ticket is outspending (by 4 to 1 in key electoral states) and out-organizing the Republicans, employing the same organizational discipline that brought President Bush his 2000 and 2004 electoral victories. The big question now is how much Democrats will add to their congressional majorities. Big margins would bring both big possibilities and big risks.

It already is time to look beyond campaign politics to 2009 governance. Before that, however, these observations should be made about the waning 2008 campaign.

  • We are reminded how much the political fundamentals drive national decisions. There was a strong desire for change this year, putting Republicans at a disadvantage at the outset. Arizona Sen. John McCain, in the last televised debate with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, declared that he was not President Bush, but he nonetheless was hurt by the incumbent Republican administration's unpopularity. The in party gets blamed when things go badly and gets credit when they go well, fairly or not.

    Moreover, at a time when Obama and McCain were running almost even in national polls, the financial meltdown occurred. This gave Democrats — favored by voters in hard economic times — a huge boost entering the campaign's final weeks. Had a major terrorist attack, here or abroad, taken place instead of a financial collapse, McCain would have benefited. But it did not, and that was the way the breaks went.

  • In the Democratic party, Obama rode the desire for change to a narrow victory over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. His managers also ran a smarter campaign than Clinton's, focusing on non-primary and smaller states, while the Clinton campaign went for wins in big states. Since Democrats decide their nominees by proportional representation, Obama squeaked through. A winner-take-all system, such as Republicans employ, would have produced a Clinton victory.

    On the Republican side, McCain benefited from the winner-take-all system to drive former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney out of the race relatively early. Romney ran quite close to McCain in big states but got no delegates there. A proportional representation system could have given Romney the nomination. The financial/economic crisis would have hurt Romney less than it has hurt McCain. Romney is well versed in such issues, is less tied to the Bush administration, and probably would have had a stronger appeal than McCain on matters most on voters' minds.

    Obama won big by reversing himself and deciding not to accept public financing (therefore, he had no spending limitations) and thus has had a money advantage usually ceded to Republicans.

  • We should recognize how much things have changed in our national politics. President Kennedy made history in 1960 when he was elected the first Catholic president. We are on the verge of electing a biracial president. Major figures in this campaign year included not only Obama but two women (Clinton and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin), three Catholics (Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani), a Latino (New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson), a Mormon (Romney), a Protestant fundamentalist (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee), and Jewish Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who almost was named McCain's running mate after having been the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000. Despite worries about racism on election day — largely unfounded, in my judgment — the biggest battle of the 1960s, the one about racial, ethnic, gender, and religious discrimination, has been decided.

  • On a down note, our national discourse was fouled to an unprecented degree by bloggers, partisan and ideological groups, radio-TV entertainers posing as analysts, and outrightly biased cable-news commentators who poured much disinformation and toxicity into our national consciousness. There also was a lot of just plain careless reporting. (One example: The widely disseminated report that someone shouted "Kill him!", referring to Obama, at a GOP rally. It never happened.) Palin was not as qualified a vice-presidential candidate as, say, Lieberman or Romney would have been. But she is not the right-wing dunce largely portrayed by media; she certainly is better qualified than Vice Presidents Agnew and Quayle and other No. 2 candidates who have lost. This has taken place at a time when citizens increasingly have turned away from traditional print media as an information source. Voters know they are being misled and resent it. Opinion surveys show "media" and "the press" as being held in as low esteem as, for instance, the Congress. This will be a difficult trend to reverse.

Now, fast forward to January.

I have supported Obama's nomination and election since mid-2007. I believe he has the intellect and temperament to break the Bush/Clinton policy-political cycles and give the country a fresh start. His general-election campaign has been less inspiring than his early nominating campaign; it constituted too greatly the usual boilerplate wish list, including trade protectionism, of interest groups important to the Democratic party. But McCain's campaign, in the end, narrowed down as well to the issues which most resonate with core Republicans.

The big opportunity, and danger, for Obama is that he will get such a large Democratic congressional majority that its agenda will conflict with his own. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California surely will return in her present job. But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada should be replaced, if at all possible, by somone abler and larger minded such as, say, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Nationally, as at the state and local levels, the big story in the next four years will be one of coping with debt and deficits which will make the setting of priorities an imperative. Even if Obama gets a huge majority, such as the 1964 majority which made possible the 1965 passage of Great Society legislation, the surrounding economic/financial climate will not make it possible to attempt another Great Society or anything close to it. There is a huge, backed-up Democratic agenda which simply will have to wait until the country returns to better times. Obama is a practical pol who recognizes this and will want to proceed carefully. Will the Democratic Congress respond to carefulness? That question, made possible by political success, will be the big one as inaugural fever gives way to day-to-day governance. Much more on this later.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.