As recently as a month ago, the excellent site electoral-vote.com showed John McCain beating Barack Obama in the general election. The site works in a straightforward fashion--its webmaster, an American living abroad, keeps track of every individual state poll and creates an electoral map based upon the most recent results. A month ago the most recent polls showed New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in McCain's camp, and gave him about 290 electoral votes. I had trouble believing some of those polls, especially in New Hampshire, where the Democratic primary vote was more than twice the Republican. Now all of those but Michigan have gone over to Obama (the one poll in Wisconsin that showed McCain ahead has turned out to be an aberration), giving Obama 276, enough for victory. Indiana and Virginia show as ties in the last two polls. Obama leads in both New Mexico and Colorado, and is within striking distance in South Carolina (where, to be fair, the poll is so old as to be worthless) and in Missouri. In short, during a period when McCain supposedly had all the advantages, he has lost significant ground. Meanwhile, Obama has once again offered something genuinely new in foreign policy, pledging to end travel and currency transfer restrictions towards Cuba. That takes courage. It is not clear whether he can carry Florida, but the power of the anti-Castro Cuban lobby will be hurt nearly as badly if he is elected without Florida, He would be the first President since Clinton in 1992 to accomplish that feat. Before that, the last President to be elected without Florida was John Kennedy.)
Should Obama win he will be far more, of course, than the first President of partially African descent. (He is an African-American in the literal sense of the term--his father was an African.) As I have noted, the Boom generation's tenure in the White House will come to an end, and not a moment too soon after the ideology-driven catastrophe of the last eight years. His election would prove that racism has lost the power to keep an attractive candidate out of the White House--just as JFK's election proved the same point, if only by the narrowest of margins, in 1960. And it will be the first real victory for the anti-establishment wing of the Democratic Party--the wing that favored Henry Wallace in the late 1940s, and Kefauver in the 1950s, and Hubert Humphrey in 1960 and McGovern in 1972, before fading almost completely from the scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
I cannot predict what such a victory will mean for our domestic life. The rightward drift on the Supreme Court wil stop, but it has already gone a long way, and the two oldest justices are liberals. The Bush tax cuts will presumably lapse. Our economic crisis is likely to require truly innovative responses, and Obama is completely untested in that arena. The need for a new national health plan is becoming greater and greater but we don't know if a coalition can be created to pass it.
In the foreign sphere the election would be quite a jolt. Again Kennedy is a parallel--his electdion in 1960 reverberated throughout the emerging Third World because he had supported Algerian independence in 1957, and Obama's election, as I have found myself talking to foreign students where I teach, would be even more of a shock, since many simply cannot believe it could happen. Relations with Europe and perhaps China, I think, will improve, but how much can be done to improve our position in the Muslim world is no longer clear. A withdrawal from Iraq will be extraordinarily controversial. I see no real prospect of peace in the Middle East with or without any change in U.S. policy towards Israel; things have gone too far, and as in the 1990s (or the 1970s in Germany), the initiative for change will probably have to come from an Israeli leader, not an American one. Obama would inherit the leadership of the United States at our worst moment, probably, since 1932, even though we live in an economic paradise compared to that year. He will need every ability he has demonstrated during the campaign, and more.
I suspect, indeed, that we shall face problems during the next eight years that seem at least as serious and unprecedented as those that emerged on September 11, 2001. Indeed, they may actually be much more serious. As years pass I begin to wonder if we have not drastically exaggerated the terrorist threat, and whether our own exaggerations have not indeed led to our present predicament. While it is scandalous that Bin Laden is still at large, it is also striking that we have not been hit by another major attack. New problems will indeed require new people and new solutions. Nothing, in my opinion, hurt Hillary Clinton more this year than her repeatedly expressed desire to return to the lost world of the 1990s. Obama is obviously highly intelligent, inspirational, and relatively free of political and ideological ties to the past. That might turn out to be what the United States needs.