Obama Wins and Redefines What It Means to Be American
With his decisive triumph over Senator John McCain, Senate Barack Obama made obvious history: he is the first black (or biracial) man to win the presidency. But the meaning of his victory -- in which Obama splashed blue across previously red states -- extends far beyond its racial significance. Obama, a former community organizer and law professor, won the White House as one of the most progressive (or liberal) nominees in the Democratic Party's recent history. Mounting one of the best run presidential bids in decades, Obama tied his support for progressive positions (taxing the wealthy to pay for tax cuts for working Americans, addressing global warming, expanding affordable health insurance, withdrawing troops from Iraq) to calls for cleaning up Washington and for crafting a new type of politics. Charismatic, steady, and confident, he melded substance and style into a winning mix that could be summed up in simple and basic terms: hope and change.
After nearly eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, Obama was the non-Bush: intelligent, curious, thoughtful, deliberate, and competent. His personal narrative -- he was the product of an unconventional family and worked his way into the nation's governing class -- fueled his campaign narrative. His story was the American Dream v2.0. He was change, at least at skin level. But he also championed the end of Bushism. He had opposed the Iraq war. He had opposed Bush's tax cuts for the rich. He was no advocate of let-'er-rip, free market capitalism or American unilateralism. In policy terms, Obama represents a serious course correction.
And more. In the general election campaign, McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, turned the fight for the presidency into a culture clash. They accused Obama of being a socialist. They assailed him for having associated with William Ayers, a former, bomb-throwing Weather Underground radical,who has since become an education expert. Palin indirectly referred to Obama's relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who once preached fiery sermons denouncing the United States government for certain policies. On the campaign trail, Palin suggested there were "real" parts of America and fake parts. At campaign events, she promoted a combative, black-helicopter version of conservatism: if you're for government expansion, you're against freedom. During her one debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, she hinted that if her opponents won the White House there might come a day when kids would ask their grandparents what it had been like to live in a free country. At McCain-Palin rallies, supporters shouted out, "Communist!" and "terrorist!" and "Muslim!" when the Republican candidates referred to Obama. And McCain and Palin hurled the standard charges at Obama: he will raise your taxes and he is weak on national security.
Put it all together and the message was clear: there are two types of Americans. Those who are true Americans -- who love their nation and cherish freedom -- and those who are not. The other Americans do not put their country first; they blame it first. The other Americans do not believe in opportunity; they want to take what you have and give it to someone else. The other Americans do not care about Joe the Plumber; they are out-of-touch elitists who look down on (and laugh at) hard-working, church-going folks. The other Americans do not get the idea of America. They are not patriots. And it just so happens that the other America is full of blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and non-Christians.
McCain, Palin and their compatriots did what they could to depict Obama as the rebel chief of this other un-American America. (Hillary Clinton helped set up their effort during the primaries by beating the Ayers drum.) Remember the stories of Obama's supposed refusal to wear a flag pin or place his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance? The emails about Obama being a secret Muslim? The goal was to delegitimize Obama, as well as the Americans who were moved by his biography, his rhetoric, and his ideas. It was back to the 1960s -- drawing a harsh line between the squares (the real Americans) and the freaks (those redistribution-loving, terrorist-coddling faux Americans).
It didn't work.
With the nation mired in two wars and beset by a financial crisis, Obama mobilized a diverse coalition that included committed Democratic liberals turned on by his policy stands (unabashed redistributionists, no doubt) and less ideologically-minded voters jazzed by his temperament, meta-themes, and come-together message. He showed that the old Republican attack tactics do not always draw blood. A candidate could advocate raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations and withstand being called a socialist. A candidate could advocate talking to the nation's enemies and withstand being tagged weak and dangerous. A candidate could be non-white, have an odd name, boast a less-than-usual ancestry, be an unrepentant Ivy Leaguer, profess a quiet and thoughtful patriotism (that encompasses both love and criticism of country), and still be a real American. And become president.
How He Did It -- The Primaries
From the start of the campaign, Obama and his advisers -- notably campaign manager David Plouffe and chief strategist David Axelrod -- shared a vision of how a freshman senator with relatively little national experience could reach the White House. Obama presented himself as an agent of change leading a movement for change. Given that a large majority of the voters believed the nation was heading in the wrong direction after two terms of George W. Bush, this was not the most brilliant of strategic strokes. But Obama had the chops to pull it off. He spoke well, he conveyed intelligence and energy, and he advocated policies that seemed like an antidote to the Bush years. And he effectively matched his own personal story (a best-selling book!) to this message of renewal.
Throughout the primaries, Obama addressed the sense of disenfranchisement Democrats and independents (and even some Republicans) had experienced during the W years. As these citizens watched Bush and Dick Cheney dole out tax cuts to the wealthy, do nothing about global warming, launch an optional war in Iraq, and expand secrecy and executive power, many felt locked out. It didn't help that Bush and his crowd appeared dismissive of those who disagreed with them, decrying elitism and playing to conservative know-nothingism. Obama came along and invited primary voters to join a crusade for change -- which meant a crusade against them. It was a chance to strike back against the empire. Obama understood the need of many to reclaim their country. The right has often exploited such a sentiment. Think of the rise of the Moral Majority. But Obama was not playing the resentment card.
Crucial to his success was Obama's decision to keep anger (at least his own) out of the equation. For him and his supporters, there was cause to be damn mad. From their perspective, the country had been hijacked by Bush, Cheney and a small band of neocons. (A view they could hold with much justification.) But Obama appeared to have made a calculation: an angry black man could not win over a majority of the voters. He offered voters not fury, but hope. And considering his "improbable" -- as he put it -- rise, he was a natural pitchman for hope. Fixating on hope allowed him to talk about the problems of the United States (past and present) while remaining an optimist. Americans tend not to elect purveyors of doom and gloom to the presidency. Usually the candidate with the sunnier disposition wins. It's not hard to fathom why. When Americans select a president, many are voting for the person who they believe best reflects their own idea of America. Voting for president has a strong psychological component. It's how Americans define their nation. So personal attributes -- character, strength, biography, personality -- are important.
Obama described his presidential bid not as a campaign of outrage but as a cause of hope -- a continuation of the grand and successful progressive movements of the past. For Democratic voters, he had the appropriate liberal policy stances. He had a record as a reformer in the Illinois state senate and the US Senate. But he provided more than resumÃ©; he served up inspiration. Obama could advocate these policies -- policies that often stir sharp partisan fights in Washington and beyond -- and at the same time convincingly call for a new politics of productivity (not partisanship) in Washington. This took some talent. Mark Schmitt credits what he calls Obama's "communitarian populism" -- a quiet, inclusive populism. Leave your pitchforks at the door. This message and his manner of delivering it led many Democratic voters to conclude that he was the right man for the post-Bush cleanup.
Obama had one big obstacle in the primaries: Hillary Clinton. She had a brand name that attracted and repulsed voters. She ran a conventional campaign. She uttered no talk of any movement. She relied on her resumÃ©, and said she was ready to roll up her sleeves and work for you. Will you hire me as your advocate-in-chief? she asked. Obama was offering music; she was offering math. It was virtually a toss-up for the Democratic electorate. What made the difference was that Obama, the heady candidate, managed his campaign more effectively than Clinton, the down-to-earth candidate, managed hers. Clinton and her crew, after losing in Iowa and then fighting back in New Hampshire, botched the middle stretch and allowed Obama to rack up a series of wins that did give him -- oh, that dreadful word -- momentum. More important, her campaign seemed to bounce from one strategy to the next, as infighting roiled Clintonland. Not until the end of the primaries did Clinton get her groove back, winning over blue-collar voters in once-industrial states as the scrappy working-class hero. But it was too late. The delegate math became undeniable.
In beating Clinton, Obama showed that he had assembled a disciplined and skilled campaign staff. Not once was his campaign rocked by internal dissension. It never went through a staff shakeup. There were no media stories, relying on unnamed sources, revealing major disputes or fundamental disagreements at Obama HQ. ("We had our disagreements," says one top Obama aide. "But they were always within the confines of getting to the best decision. I was stunned by how well it all worked.") Consensus, smooth operations, no signs of turf fights or ego battles -- this is virtually unheard of in a major modern presidential campaigns. Obama even handled his flip-flops -- voting for the telecom immunity bill after vowing not to and opting out of public financing system after indicating he would remain within it -- relatively well. The operation of his campaign sent a signal: Obama was a serious person who could ably handle pressure. Obama preached hope and at the same time he was the CEO of a well-managed enterprise that would raise and spend (in record amounts) hundreds of millions of dollars.
How He Did It -- The General Election
Once it became clear that Obama and McCain would each be the presidential nominee of their respective parties, they faced two big tests -- selecting a running mate and addressing the financial meltdown. Obama passed both; McCain failed both.
Obama's choice of Biden was not inspiring. It was, in a way, a conventional pick, a safe bet (relatively safe, given Biden's penchant for verbal slip-ups). Obama's campaign was predicated on the promise he would shake up Washington. Biden, a three-decade veteran of the Senate, was not known as a rebel. But he had deep foreign policy experience and had spent years courting the working-class voters of Delaware. He could reassure voters worried that Obama had not spent enough years toiling on national security matters. And Biden certainly would not compete with Obama for headlines and screen time. Obama was the inspiration on the ticket. Biden was the insurance policy.
By going with Biden, Obama dared to be boring and indicated he was willing to play it straight when necessary. He abided by the first rule of veep selection: do no harm. McCain took another route. He gambled. He picked a governor little-known on the national stage -- a woman whom even McCain barely knew. It gave his campaign a shot of excitement and surprise. Her performance at the Republican convention was dazzling. But this high did not last, as Palin did miserably in media interviews. Several conservative columnists had to admit she was not ready for prime time. Within weeks, McCain's act of daring was widely perceived as an act of recklessness. Her approval ratings plummeted. Polls indicated she was a drag on a ticket and a prominent reason why some voters were not favoring McCain.
Palin was strike one. Strike two was McCain's erratic response to the financial crisis -- saying different things, deciding to suspend his campaign but then suspending the suspension. His actions reinforced the impression created by the Palin misstep: he likes to shoot from the hip. But with the economy and Wall Street in a free fall, many voters were probably not eager for another cowboy president. Meanwhile, Obama, who met with establishment advisers and calmly backed the $700 billion bailout (which McCain also endorsed), looked like the adult in the room that crucial week, which culminated in the first debate. That face-off, according to the insta-polls, was a win for Obama, as were the next two confrontations.
Weeks into the general election, Obama had made a pivot -- but so smoothly that most of the politerati did not even see it. He had gone from the inspiring movement leader calling for wholesale change in Washington to a reassuring figure who demonstrated that he could play well with the establishment. The younger and less experienced of the two nominees seemed better suited to handle a crisis. Iraq and national security were no longer the issues; the economy was. And Obama showed he possessed the steadier hand. At the final debate, as McCain jabbed with punches that packed not much punch, Obama came across as confident if not so dynamic. But when the world is cracking up, who wants pizzazz?
Losing on the economy front -- and in the temperament contest -- McCain, with Palin acting like his gun moll, stepped up his use of the standard GOP attack lines. He went back to basics. Obama, he contended, yearned to raise taxes not just on the rich but on everybody. Even though independent experts had concluded that middle-class voters would receive a bigger tax cut under Obama's proposal than McCain's, the McCain camp kept issuing charges about Obama's tax aims that were not true. They found a mascot in Joe the Plumber (who was not really named Joe and not really a plumber). And they whipped up the old tax-and-spend fear about Democrats.
"Now is no the time to experiment with socialism," Palin exclaimed at rallies, ignoring the fact that she presides over the socialistic state of Alaska (which redistributes tax revenues collected from oil companies to the state's citizens). She dubbed Obama "Barack the Wealth Spreader." At a McCain rally near St. Louis, Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) said, "This campaign in the next couple of weeks is about one thing. It's a referendum on socialism.â€ Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) weighed in on Obama: "With all due respect, the man is a socialist.â€ McCain repeatedly referred to Obama as the "redistributionist-in-chief," often stumbling over the phrase. He must have forgotten that during a 2000 campaign event, he was asked, "Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism," and McCain replied, "Here's what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, thereâ€™s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more."
It was an anti-intellectual attack -- taxes equals socialism -- ignoring basic facts and the personal history of McCain (who was roundly accused by conservatives of engaging in "class warfare" in 2000 when he opposed George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich). The point was to strike fear into the hearts of voters who make far less money than Obama's proposed threshold for tax hikes. McCain was not appealing to the better nature of voters.
Putting up a fierce fight, Obama did not make it personal. He paid tribute to McCain's military service. But he slammed McCain for standing with Bush on economic issues. "If you want to know where Senator McCain will drive this economy, just look in the rearview mirror," Obama told campaign audiences. And he challenged the Big Idea of the Republican Party:
The last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired, old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. The last thing we can afford is four more years where no one in Washington is watching anyone on Wall Street because politicians and lobbyists killed common-sense regulations. Those are the theories that got us into this mess. They haven't worked, and it's time for change.
Obama wasn't just taking on Bushism. He was taking on Reaganism.
McCain, Palin, and their supporters did make it personal. They claimed that Obama was misleading the voters, that he was not what he seemed. They argued that he was not up to the job. The McCain-Palin campaign ran a series of ads -- one falsely asserted that Obama had supported teaching kindergartners "comprehensive sex education" -- that various MSM outlets pronounced untruthful and unfair. The Straight Talk Express was derided as a cavalcade of misrepresentation. The McCain-Palin campaign revived the Bill Ayers attack. It tried to brand Obama an associate of anti-Semites, pointing to his relationship with a Palestinian scholar -- without producing evidence that this Palestinian was anti-Semitic. (The International Republican Institute, a group chaired by McCain, had given over $400,000 to a group co-founded by this scholar.)
It was an ugly assault. Speaking in support of McCain and Palin, Representative Robin Hayes (R-NC) declared, "Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God." McCain supporters referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama." At a Palin rally, Representative Steve King (R-IA) said that an Obama victory would cause the United States to turn into a â€œtotalitarian dictatorship.â€ Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) declared that Obama was "anti-American." While she was at it, she urged the media to investigate and root out anti-Americanism within the US Congress.
This mud did not stick. Perhaps worse for McCain, his camp never presented a coherent strategic argument for its candidate. Obama had change and hope. McCain had no real case for McCain -- other than he was a POW who put his country first. What did he want to do as president? Serve his country again. He essentially asked to be rewarded for his past service and sacrifice. He didn't feel the voters' pain; he wanted them to feel his. And his campaign ended up being defined mostly by its retro attack on Obama: he's an untested and untrustworthy liberal.
Most of the voters disagreed.
With his victory, Obama has ended the Bush II era with an exclamation point. (The Democratic gains in Congress seconded the point.) Now Obama faces a restoration project of unprecedented proportions. It may take years for him and the rest of Washington to remedy the ills neglected, exacerbated or caused by the Bush presidency. And he will have a tough time matching progress to promise. At his victory celebration in Chicago before tens of thousands, he lowered expectations: "the road ahead will be long. The climb ahead will be steep." And he noted that his electoral victory merely provided "only the chance for us to make that change."
But his barrier-breaking victory was indeed change in itself. Consider this: Obama ended his campaign at a rally on Monday night in Manassas, Virginia, the site of Battle of Bull Run, the opening land battle of the Civil War, in which Union troops were routed and forced to retreat back to Washington, DC There before a crowd of 90,000 -- young, old, black, white, affluent, working-class -- Obama summed up his case:
Tomorrow, you can turn the page on policies that have put greed and irresponsibility before hard work and sacrifice. Tomorrow, you can choose policies that invest in our middle class and create new jobs, grow this economy so everybody has a chance to succeed, not just the CEO but the secretary and the janitor, not just the factory owner but the men and women who work the factory floors. And tomorrow, you can end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election, that pits region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat, that asks us to fear at a time when we need to hope.
A black man on the verge of being elected president said that.
But race is just one part of the tale. Obama has done more than become a first. He has redrawn the electoral map (take that, Karl Rove) and reshaped the political culture of the United States. He has transformed the image of the United States -- abroad and at home. (He vowed in Chicago that "a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.") Above all, after eight troubling years and after decades of ideological civil war, Obama has redefined what is real America. "Who knew that we were the Silent Majority?" his press secretary Linda Douglass said moments after Obama left the stage in Grant Park.
The voters who see President-elect Obama as the embodiment of their America can trade the Yes We Can motto for a new one: Yes We Are.
David Corn is the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones and the co-author of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush . He writes a blog at davidcorn.com.