I am not going to feel really confident about this election before news on the night of November 4 seals the deal, but the polls, as reported on electoral-vote.com, are looking more and more encouraging. As many of you must know by now, the map color-codes states into three categories for each party: "barely" ahead (4 percentage points or less), "weakly" (5-9 points), or "strongly" (10 or more.) I question that choice of words--a 7- or 8- point lead is hardly a weak one, in my opinion--but this method does a good job of illustrating trends. Obama has for the moment passed an important milestone--his "weak" and "strong" leads now total 282 electoral votes, and 277 even if one deletes West Virginia--a result that for the moment really seems too good to be true--or seven more than he needs. His leads in Ohio and Florida are still within the margin of error, but if his five-point lead in Virginia holds up he will not need either one. The obvious panic in the McCain campaign is quite understandable.
There is meanwhile an extraordinary article in the New Yorker by George Packer--whose writings on Iraq I have discussed at length--on another critical bombed-out landscape, the towns of semi-rural Ohio. Gradually, learning what the last 20 years have actually done to the working class of the United States, Packer realizes the real reason that Democrats have been having so much trouble with white working-class voters. It isn't racism, religion, or guns (and Packer, to his credit, quotes the context of Obama's notorious remark along those lines, to show that Obama himself understands this quite well.) The real reason is that it has been so long since the Democratic Party actually did anything to help these people economically. The national leadership's decision not to take any stand against de-industrialization, union-busting and the erosion of health care and retirement benefits has left white Americans with little or no reason to vote Democratic. The same trend was evident in Congress two weeks ago, when the Democratic leadership could not come up with a real alternative to the bail-out, one that would intuitively have appealed to the middle-class Americans whose votes they seek. Packer found almost no enthusiasm for McCain, but many of the people he met declared their intention not to vote at all. If Obama actually does win he will be under enormous pressure to find ways actually to start redistributing income downward again--perhaps, as he has indicated in campaign documents, by New Deal-type public works projects, which we certainly desperately need. (The economic hemorrhage accelerated this week, of course--an issue I will save for later--and the next President certainly faces a severe recession.) Whether he will actually take some steps away from globalization--as FDR very definitely did in 1933, devaluing the dollar and torpedoing a World Economic Conference--is another very interesting question. In last week's debate McCain talked about naming Warren Buffett Secretary of the Treasury; I would have like to have heard Obama suggest Joseph Stiglitz, a critic of the excesses of globalization. The Democrats' poor fortunes in the rust belt simply confirm the immortal words of Harry Truman: "When the people have to choose between a Republican and a Republican," he said, "they'll take the Republican every time."
Obama will if elected face an enormous challenge on the domestic front because it has been so long--nearly thirty years--since the government really cared about wage-earners, and there are far fewer of them, and in far more vulnerable positions, today than there were then. Packer didn't talk to any factory workers--there were none left in the region he visited. He interviewed waitresses, health-care workers, and the unemployed. We have not faced, much less grappled with, the consequences of abandoning our role as a country that makes things. Some of this change was undoubtedly inevitable, but it did not have to go as far as it did. Whether it could be reversed now, I do not know.
Crises no one wants to discuss are also looming in foreign policy, where Obama--like FDR in 1932--has decided to play it safe. For Roosevelt--who in early 1932 feared the opposition of media magnate William Randolph Hearst--that meant renouncing membership in the League of Nations, for which he had campaigned as a vice-presidential candidate in 1920. For Obama it has meant parroting Republican positions on Georgia, Israel, and Iran, and calling for more troops in Afghanistan. Some interesting developments--one completely unreported in the US--are however suggesting how changes in these policies might come about. During the first week of October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel--the most pro-American chancellor in Europe--went to Russia and gave a press conference in which she expressed opposition even to putting Georgia and Ukraine on a path to NATO membership, much less admitting them--the opposite of both Obama's and McCain's positions, but one which recent events clearly call for. UN observers and a British general, meanwhile, have declared that there is no military solution to events in Afghanistan, only a political solution involving all interested parties, including the Taliban. (Pakistan's long-standing support for the Taliban is of course creating a new crisis with that country.) For quite a while now I have wondered how we could work so hard on the supposed promotion of democracy abroad when our democracy at home was so desperately in need of work. The economic crisis may pave the way for a saner foreign policy.
It will not do so, however,without opposition. Yesterday John McCain had perhaps his one moment of glory during his sorry campaign, when he told an angry Republican at one his rallies not to be scared by the prospect of Barack Obama in the White House. Earlier in the week McCain had resisted what appeared to be tremendous pressures from his own camp--including from Sarah Palin and his long-time supported Bill Kristol--to raise the subjects of Jeremiah Wright and William Ayres in the debate. McCain has made many appalling compromises during the last few years--most notably his cave-in on torture, which Obama has been too polite to mention--but there are evidently some lengths to which he will not go. However, the 24/7 hate campaign waged against Obama in emails, on Talk radio, and on Fox news will not stop if he is in the White House. Roosevelt faced the same kind of assault for the whole of his Presidency, even without the internet. We are indeed fortunate to have discovered some one who can apparently deal with this situation calmly. Like the steadiness of a general on a chaotic battlefield, this is an aspect of leadership we need in the coming crisis.