Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Change of Seasons

Barack Obama won the Presidency on Tuesday with plenty to spare. Surpassing my own cautious hopes, he won 364 electoral votes, including every state in which the final polls showed him ahead, and came within an ace of overcoming John McCain in Missouri as well. His 53% majority was the highest for any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. While the Democrats have won only 57 Senate seats rather than the 60 they had hoped for, the Republican minority still includes at least four moderates—Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, Arlen Spector, and Richard Lugar—who would not join a filibuster against a pro-choice nominee, clearing the way for the replacement of John Paul Stevens, who will surely resign at the end of the current term at the latest. (A Minnesota recount may still give that seat to Al Franken and the Alaska count is not yet finished, but the Republicans seem likely to win both.) The Obama campaign out-financed, out-manned and out-organized its Republican rivals. Meanwhile, amidst a collapsing economy and an extraordinarily fluid world situation, Obama takes office at a moment of greater opportunities than those offered to any President since Roosevelt in 1933, or perhaps Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As I pointed out last week, he appears to welcome this opportunity, and he, like FDR (who was 50 when he took office) has the relative youth, energy, and curiosity to take full advantage of it. He will need them all. He faces a moment of death and rebirth both at home and abroad—and he appears to know it.
At home the United States is experiencing once again the consequences of an almost unbridled laissez-faire, market-dominated economy. The financial sector, the main source of our economic growth over the last 30 years, has now collapsed, and the unemployment figures show that it is dragging the retail and manufacturing sectors down with it. This leaves us with a truly staggering challenge. Roosevelt in 1933 had to revive an existing agricultural and industrial economy, something he did with only intermittent success until the coming of the Second World War. Now we apparently need a largely new economy. Obama has such an economy in mind, featuring public works and the development of alternative energy sources, but it has been decades since the United States embarked upon a comparable project. We also are moving towards government-financed re-tooling of the auto industry, and, perhaps, government-run health care. Obama should heed the words of Lyndon Johnson, given to his special counsel Harry McPherson during 1965: with the Congress, one year is all you get. The economic collapse is an unparalleled opportunity, and he has the chance, like Johnson in 1965 or Roosevelt in 1933, to push through three or four pieces of major legislation. All signs suggest that he wants to do just that. If he can transform the lives of a few million Americans during the next four years he, like FDR, will be overwhelmingly re-elected.
The opportunities abroad are potentially even greater, because the world has greeted Obama’s election with such an outpouring of amazement, relief, and hope. People on every continent are convinced that the United States will no longer try to dominate key regions of the world by force, and I believe that they are right. I had been disappointed during the campaign by Obama’s embrace of a number of mainstream foreign policy positions on the Middle East and Georgia, but my ears perked up on election night when he sketched out his plans.
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.[emphasis added.]

No President, in all likelihood, will ever go as far as I did in the draft Presidential speech that I posted on April 14, 2007, but those words had some of the same spirit, and I look forward to finding out how the new President plans to put them into practice. He could potentially take one dramatic step in Europe by backing way from our misguided (and militarily useless) plans for missile defense installations in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Lost in the excitement of the election was the Russian announcement of Russia’s intention to station missiles of its own in the enclave of Kaliningrad, the formerly German city of KÅ‘nigsberg, now stuck forlornly between Lithuania and Poland. This, like Putin’s earlier denunciation of the conventional forces treaty, is a step towards a return to a cold war in Europe. A new mutual agreement not to station missiles in Europe would be a welcome shift. Meanwhile, in Iraq Obama’s election is already giving a boost to political forces favoring a relatively quick end to the American occupation. That could lead to new talks inside Iraq to formalize some kind of partition of the country, which remains the only possible solution. We are also in a crossroads in Afghanistan, faced with the need to re-examine our attempt to create a strong central government and national army—an attempt that has so far been a failure. Based upon previous statements, Obama can also be expected to propose a new nuclear non-proliferation initiative.
We now obviously have a President who wants to go beyond sound bites, who understands the complexity of issues, and who shows promise of enjoying both the solution and the explanation of our problems. Meanwhile, we also have a new United States.
Barack Obama owes his victory almost entirely to Americans under 45. Those between 30 and 45 (the bulk of Generation X, who are now between 27 and 47) gave him an exit poll margin of 52-46, almost exactly his overall total. Those 18-29 (Millennials are now approximately 6-26) voted for him by a margin of more than two to one, 66 to 32 per cent. Those 45-64—essentially Boomers (who are 48-65)—characteristically split right down the middle, with Obama winning 50-49. Silents and GIs 65 and over gave McCain a 54-45 edge. Those figures should send chills down the spine of every Republican consultant. For the GOP, to paraphrase Mort Sahl, the future, for the moment, lies behind. The Millennials are the new Hero generation, and their support for Obama exactly parallels the behavior of the GI generation in 1932, when they included voters of roughly 21 to 28. (In 1936 an even larger GI generation gave Roosevelt 80% of its vote.) The Millennials, coming of age in a time of economic crisis and possessing, like the GIs, a healthy sense of entitlement, were voting for a better future. If Obama and the Democrats can provide it, a new Democratic era is at hand.
And last but not least, there is the question of race.
The joy of black Americans was everywhere on view on Tuesday night, and most understandably so. After centuries of slavery and discrimination, followed by four decades of long-suppressed bitterness, they had beaten the odds and were now full Americans at last. But I hope no one will be offended it I add that the joy of many white Americans like myself was just as deep. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s believing that equality was the essence of American life, who saw the early civil rights marches and remembered Kennedy’s and Johnson’s civil rights speeches and attended the March on Washington (as I did) and recall the deaths of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, had also carried a heavy burden for the last forty years: our inability to prove that American ideals were not simple hypocrisy and that our parents and we had meant what we said. It was not impossible to argue with black contemporaries who claimed that American would never be anything but racist, but it was not easy. Now that argument has been won by all the black and white Americans who seized the chance to vote for that uniquely American figure, Barack Obama—whose life, like that of so many white Americans like myself, would be both impossible and unimaginable anywhere else on earth. As usual, Obama himself hit the nail on the head at the beginning of his speech Tuesday night.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.
It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.
It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Now, as in 1933 and 1941, we also need to prove that we can cement that new feeling of hope, solidarity and equality through real achievement.
The extraordinary suddenness of this transformation is reflected in the pressimistic tone of many of the posts I made here during 2004-6. As late as 2005 we seemed on the verge of a long-term Republican ascendancy—just as Southern Democrats seemed on the verge of achieving the domination of the Union in 1857, and the Republican Party had won its most staggering victory ever in 1928. Strauss and Howe always stressed that their 80-year cycle was above all a natural process, governed by the rhythm of life and death. A half-century ago, Boris Pasternak made a similar point at the climax of his classic Dr. Zhivago, when his hero, his own life in tatters, reflected in the wake of the Russian Revolution on the nature of historical change.

"He reflected again that he conceived of history, of what is called the course of history, ot in the accepted way but by analogy with the vegetable kingdom. In winter, under the snow, the leafless branches of a wood are thin and poor, like the hairs on an old man’s wart. But in only a few days in spring the forest is transformed, it reaches the clouds, and you can hide or lose yourself in its leafy maze. This transformation is achieved with a speed greater than in the case of animals, for animals do not grow as fast as plants, and yet we cannot directly observe the movement of growth even of plants. The forest does not change it sp place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change. Whenever we look at it, it seems to be motionless. And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselessly changing history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformations."

The calendar tells us we are in autumn, but already we can see the leaves coming out again, with greater profusion and promise than they have shown for many decades.


CultureVulture said...

Interesting post and blog. Relevantly, many prominent experts and publications have pointed out that Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and GenXers.

You may find this page interesting: it has, among other things, excerpts from publications like Newsweek and the New York Times, and videos with over 25 top pundits, all talking specifically about Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser:

Anonymous said...

Excellent overview, more historically panoramic than most, and the hope that informs it is indeed a refreshing change.

'I had been disappointed during the campaign by Obama’s embrace of a number of mainstream foreign policy positions on the Middle East and Georgia'

This thought, and the centrality of the ME in particular, deserved more than an aside. At first glance, it does not rate the same coverage as the economy and climate change, but the issue is located across several critical junctures of American governance, with partisans of one side utterly dominating the field, to the extent that in certain critical fields, the sovereignty of US policy and actions is called into question.

It might only seem an Achilles heel, but if left to fester it could endanger the heart, and the soul, of the nation, and put into question Obama's capacity to implement his resuscitative agenda.

Obama's very first appointments do not bode well in this regard.

Glenn Condell