In one of his last interviews prior to election day, Barack Obama said that he considered his biggest challenge as President would be creating a "working majority for change." Very wise words, reflecting his origins as a community organizer that taught him what was required to get things done.
Tuesday's election was historic (See, "If Obama Wins: The First Person of Color to Govern Any White Majority Country, Ever", November 4, 2008). In purely electoral terms the Democratic Presidential candidate evened-up and slightly tipped states that had been Republican for decades: Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado. He beat the Republican in the popular vote by 6%, representing more than 6 million votes.
Six factors contributed to this success. The first was the candidate himself: eloquent, bright, cool, and his brilliant campaign team. The second was the coming of age of the "millennials", the 83 million people born after 1980, whose view of the world is quite different than any of their forbears. The third was economic debacle that, along with the other disasters perpetrated by the Bush Administration, produced a "country-is-on-the-right-track" response of only 10%. The foruth was the lame campaign run by his opponent. The fifth was the demographic changes in those states (see above) as more traditionally-Democratic leaning populations such as latinos, government workers and young voters moving in, registering and voting in greater proportions than before. The sixth was the rise of the internet as a means of connecting all these pieces.
With all that, Obama won 52.4% of the popular vote. Why was it not higher? What does that mean for the "working majority for change" that Obama needs to create and sustain, a tall order under any circumstances in turf-focused Washington DC?
Since the New Deal, no President, Democrat or Republican, has directly addressed the needs and concerns of "heartland America", the large swaths of the country dotted by small towns, industrial and agricultural. The New Deal included the Rural Electrification Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps and others.
Since that time, Democrats have believed they have addressed the needs of this segment of the population by general measures such as minimum wage, safety standards, college loans, etc. Unlike the New Deal, however, these programs do not arise in the "heartland", and thus (as Tom Franks as pointed out in, "What's Wrong with Kansas") no matter what they are designed to do, heartland America has felt ignored and powerless, and thus alienated.
Enter the Republicans. They have been even worse, abusing the condition of heartland America without ever intending to do anything about it. As heartland America has declined under the weight of both the changing economy and inattention, the Republicans have learned to win elections stirring their passions by blaming the Democrats for their plight. The Democrats, they are told, take their money and give it to urban minorities, and celebrate the non-traditional cultures of the cities. Listen to comments any petty rightwing demagogue like Limbaugh or Gingrich, and it is little more than a rant about "San Francisco" values, "Hollywood culture" or the media.
The Republicans have not the slightest interest in doing anything that would really help heartland America. They want the most laissez-faire free trade agreements with a minimum of protections. They do not want to spend money on building infrastructure or early childhood education, healthcare or even childhood health. Despite heartland America being the source for most of our volunteer military, Republicans resist programs to help returning veterans.
But, they have been successful at abusing heartland America by blaming the Democrats.
For evidence, superimpose maps of Senator Mark Warner's Virginia vote and Barack Obama's. There are large swaths of territory that Warner won and Obama lost. If it were a matter of policy, that would be difficult to explain. Race is not a full explanation since Kerry and Gore had similar maps, but did not have the new influx of Democratic voters in urban areas and the increased interest of college students to vote in large numbers to tip the state in their favor.
But, Mark Warner is very popular in heartland Virginia. Why? Because when he was Governor, he listened to heartland Virginia, and addressed their needs, directly. They want quality jobs, but they do not want to have to move to cities to obtain them. Nor do they want their children to be forced to move away. So, Warner led the nation in linking small town schools and libraries to the internet, provided small town classroom teachers with training in how to use those tools to improve the quality of education. With a more educated population, lower costs, and links to the web--presto!, quality jobs started coming to some of those towns. Even his tax increases were not subject to the same demagoguery as Republicans usually employ, because the "heartland Virginia" voters saw the money as coming to address their needs, not just urban minorities.
So, here is what President-elect Obama can do to create his "working majority for change". Launch the "Great American Heartland Initiative" not devised by DC-insiders and academics, but by convening small-town mayors (Democrats, Republicans, Independents), city managers, local union representatives, farmers and others, to develop first a list of needs and wants for their communities, and subsequently to devise specific proposals to tackle them.
Many of the solutions will, not surprisingly, be similar to those that President Obama will employ to fix the economy. For example, high quality jobs that cannot be outsourced will come, in part, through his energy initiative. Others will arise under infrastructure projects. Still others will be providing quality education.
But, with the input of heartland America, it will be sufficiently tailored to help those communities; and, with these visibly arising from this "Great American Heartland Initiative", Obama will have created that "working majority for change" he so wisely realized he needs.
If you think this is addressing Joe-the-Plumber, or at least what he is iconically meant to represent, you are correct.
It's how Obama gets from 52.4% to 65%+, that working majority for change.
And, it will be sustainable.