I am truly moved by the historic nature of Barack Obama's victory. And I fully understand the need for his supporters to celebrate. After months of hoping, waiting and fearing the worst, Obama's win was like a giant catharsis. A communal breath of relief.
But let us not linger too long on his triumph. Because if an Obama presidency is not successful, much of what was gained will be lost. And quickly. The last thing we need is another Jimmy Carter (which brought us Ronald Reagan), and Obama may not have the time to rebound after a tentative start, like Bill Clinton did early in his first term. The election is not the end of this journey. In fact, it's close to the beginning. Obama has not hit a home run; he has merely earned the right to step into the batter's box.
First, though, we should absolutely pause for a moment to recognize and take pride in what has occurred. It is monumental that the United States has elected an African American to be president. Given that racism is still felt in so many aspects of our society, that mere fact alone is worthy of celebration. But what I find exceptionally gratifying and moving is that the country turned to a black candidate because it wanted a smart, unifying, transcendent leader. Race took a back seat to excellence. It was an important step for the U.S. to take.
Equally exciting to me is that the American electorate rejected negative smear tactics and a campaign of fear to elect a candidate who had demonstrated that he was competent, smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking and a man of big ideas. For the last eight years, we have endured the polar opposite. George W. Bush ruled by fear, scaring Americans into accepting what he wanted. He was a beacon of anti-intellectualism and shallow thought. And competence was a dirty word in the Bush administration, forever personified by the president's compliment, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," when the head of FEMA, who was totally unqualified for the position, completely dropped the ball as death and destruction were allowed to rage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
In this election, the citizens of this country reached a point where they were not going to accept another campaign of fear and smears. No amount of talk about Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, or accusations that Obama was a socialist and a friend of terrorists, or the not-so-subtle hints about "real" Americans and "pro-America" parts of the country, would sway voters from choosing the candidate they felt was the better man for the job. And this is something of which we should all be proud.
So rejoice fellow Obama supporters. Take in this moment. Feel the pride and the hope and the optimism. It's all well deserved.
But eventually, and soon, we have to move on. Because tremendous challenges await the Obama administration (how cool is it to write that?!?), and failure is not an option, not if the Democrats want to hold onto power. Again, if Obama turns out to be as unsuccessful as Carter was in addressing the nation's woes, what, other than the symbolic breaking of a barrier, has been accomplished?
Obama will take office facing a mountain of problems that are, in aggregate, far worse than those faced by Carter: an economy in recession, reeling financial markets, a broken military, two wars, an energy crisis, the need to overhaul the nation's health care system, the spiraling cost of Medicare and Social Security, and a huge deficit that will limit the resources available to address all of these problems.
And Obama will have to act with an angry, bitter, very conservative minority in Congress waiting for him to fail and committed to do what it can to see that he does. Remember, with the Democrats mustering only 56 Senate seats (if you include Joe Lieberman, plus Jeff Merkley and/or Mark Begich if either prevails in their late-running races), the party is far from securing the 60 votes it needs to bring legislation to a vote. That means it takes only 41 Republicans to block anything from getting done in the chamber.
If you think the Republicans have been humbled by the drubbing the party took, consider that House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio (a state Obama won) said yesterday: "Democrats would be making a big mistake if they viewed these results as a repudiation of conservatism or a mandate for big government." Boehner also said that Obama "has sketched a troubling policy road map that will be run through a Congress that was purchased by powerful liberal special interests." Without filibuster power, House Republicans won't be able to do much to block Obama's plans, but Boehner's bellicose words, which are, frankly, shocking in light of the country's repudiation of Republicans in the election, illustrate the kind of nearly irrational hostility the new president will have to face from the GOP.
And when you consider the election as a whole and look beyond Obama's win, there are some disturbing signs that the Democrats will be at great risk of losing power in 2010 if they don't start solving some of the country's problems very soon. Consider that 2008 was a perfect storm rushing at the Republicans: a despised Republican president was in office, an economic crisis hit less than two months before the election, the country was engaged in an unpopular war, and Democrats experienced record turnout (including African Americans and young people).
It would be hard to conceive of a set of circumstances, short of a Watergate-like scandal, that would be worse for the Republicans. And yet, in the end, they did better than they ever could have hoped. While Obama's victory was solid, he only bested McCain by six percentage points. While gains were made in the Senate, the Democrats failed to capture any of the three vulnerable deep red states in play (Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi), prospects look bleak for a victory in blue Minnesota, and there is no guarantee of winning in blue Oregon. Even in the House, where seats were picked up (we don't know for sure how many yet), it looks like the total will be on the low end of the expected range, and several Democratic incumbents actually lost, including one in Louisiana who earlier this year won a special election to gain the seat in a predominantly Republican district.
My point is that, even with an extremely favorable situation in place, the Democrats' gains were relatively modest. It would not take much of a turnaround for these swing House districts to swing back to the GOP, and for the Senate races to be less hospitable to Democrats than they were in 2008. And in 2010, the party will not be able to count on the historic turnout that came with Obama's run for the presidency.
Which is why the journey is not over with Obama's election. It is essential that the Democrats take a smart and bold path to make the lives of middle and working class Americans better. If the party can succeed in this regard, the 2010 doomsday scenario will never occur. Bold options have to be considered, such as the Green New Deal Van Jones has talked about. Jones argues that investing in green energy production as both an economic stimulus and a way to address the country's crippling energy problems can ensure that Obama does not meet the same fate as Carter. (Jones wrote an article in the latest issue of The Nation about building a coalition to make a Green New Deal a reality.) Whatever path Obama and the Democrats take, they have to put the United States on a path to recovery.
As excited as I am about Obama's big win, I can't help worrying about what comes next. If he handles the presidency as deftly and assuredly as he ran his campaign, we have nothing to worry about. Let's hope the Democrats are able to start getting the job done in the next two years. The legacy of this election depends on it.
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General Election: Nov 3, 2020
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