Hey Barack, Don't Forget: "You Gotta Dance With Them What Brung Ya"
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Barack Obama was elected by a broad constituency, more diverse and less white than any in American history, and arguably the most progressive. A new majority, sure to grow in the future, has emerged in this election, as minority voters registered and turned out for Obama in record numbers. Ninety-five percent of African-American voters supported him; younger voters became more engaged in politics and voted decisively on behalf of the new president; union members and gays voted for Obama in high numbers; and the single-women vote, which included a huge share of minority women, came down overwhelmingly for the new president at the rate of 70 percent 29 percent -- compared with married women, who went for McCain 50 percent to 47 percent, creating a huge, record-breaking "marriage gap" of 44 points among women.
Furthermore, the decisive Obama victory should put to rest the enduring myth, perpetrated by innumerable media pundits, that the United States is a conservative country. Poll after poll, as well as long-term research, underscores that on every issue, the electorate is far more progressive -- and getting more progressive all the time -- than what people have experienced over the past eight Bush years, and even during the Clinton administration.
If the Obama administration is going to be in tune with its voters, there will need to be massive policy changes in every aspect of government. The power of lobbyists, corporations and overrepresented constituencies, like gun owners, senior citizens, white males, married women and the wealthy, are by necessity going to need to cede ground to a more populist rainbow confection that is the Obama coalition.
On the other hand, the pressure of the multiple international and national crises Obama faces is motivating him to staff up as quickly as is feasible. This, combined with his penchant for smart, savvy, experienced insiders, is leading Obama to bring in a host of Clinton administration operatives into his administration, with many more on the queue. This early trend is so obvious that it led New York Times writer Peter Baker to observe that Obama "faces the challenge of building an administration that does not look like a third term for former president Bill Clinton. ... Obama reached deep into the Clinton fold ... naming John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff, to lead his transition team. He has asked another former Clinton aide, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, to be his own chief of staff and is said to be choosing between two former Clinton veterans to be his National Security adviser."
Molly Ivins, the late and revered populist Texas journalist and humorist, was fond of saying, "You Gotta Dance With Them What Brung Ya." Time will tell how well Barack Obama knows how to dance with his constituencies. Will he stay true to his change-oriented supporters who brought him to his crowning moment, who are ready to do any number of dances with him, from the funky chicken to the mashed potato, from crumping to salsa, from the jitterbug to the lindy? Or will the Illinois senator stick to the old insider dance card and slow dance with those who have enjoyed the fruits of the dance floor for so long?
Of Course, Obama Is Obama!
Any discussion of diversity and change in the new Obama administration has to start with the president-elect himself. A half-African, half-white Midwesterner with an Arab-sounding middle name, mostly raised by his grandmother in Hawaii 5,000 miles from the U.S. mainland, Obama will be our new president after conducting a campaign that was extraordinary in so many ways. This single event has provided enormous inspiration and hope, not only in the United States but also across the globe. The Obama presidency, by its very existence, speaks volumes for diversity and offers a new reality in the United States that so many, feeling hopeless for so long, essentially thought was impossible.
Still, voters deserve some credit, too. In a country known for its propaganda-style media, its large chunks of misinformed and living-in-denial voters, deep-seated racism and huge discrepancies in income and education, it took a near-perfect performance from the candidate and a leap of faith from millions of voters not used to taking chances; many voters did something very different than they had before in their lives. And the candidate performance was near ideal. Obama was the most effective, unflappable, articulate candidate in memory, while his campaign was probably the best organized in U.S. history.
So in considering how Obama staffs up and moves forward, there needs to be a balance of addressing the crises with dispatch, and the inclusion of his new and younger tribes. And of course it will take time to get a full picture of how his administration will evolve. Nevertheless, the collection of voters who brought Obama to power represents the future of America, and it must be engaged in the shifting of our politics. If Obama doesn't treat the aspirations for change in his millions of new and renewed voters seriously by including new and fresh faces in his administration, then there will be enormous disappointment. What follows are profiles of the constituencies whose votes made the difference.
Do the Math
Single Women: "Single," or unmarried, women arguably turned out to be the most significant demographic, in terms of overall votes and high percentage of support in the colorful mix of voters that produced the Obama majority. The big numbers emerging from exit polls (in this case based upon calculations by the CNN national election pool conducted by Edison/Mitofsky), with the exception of course of 95 percent of African-Americans voting for Obama, was the single-women vote going overwhelmingly for Obama by 70 percent to 29 percent, exceeding his numbers among Latinos, union members and young people, producing an astounding marriage gap of 44 percent. Unmarried women -- women who are single, separated, divorced or widowed -- also gave strong support to Democrats in House races, splitting 64 to 29 nationally for Democratic candidates. With unmarried women, Obama had a 12-million-plus vote margin. If unmarried women had voted in the same numbers as married women, he would have lost by 5 million votes. "Unmarried women have changed America, and they are an influential part of the new electorate. This year we can say, unmarried women were heard loud and clear. They voted for change. Now it's time for the new administration and the Congress to listen to these women in public policy debates," said Page Gardner, president and founder of Women's Voices Women Vote.
Many single women are minorities, and are frequently low-income. In a new Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll on what women, married and unmarried, are looking for from Barack Obama's administration, single women in particular say that they're really in need of economic help -- and that they're hopeful that they'll get it from the Obama administration. Eighty-four percent of unmarried women are "hopeful this election will bring real change to the direction of the country." Fifty percent of unmarried women say they are having trouble making ends meet (compared to 35 percent among married women). Eighteen percent of single women don't have health insurance, compared to 4 percent among married women. Overall, the leading issues are the economic squeeze issue, particularly in terms of health care, but there was also strong support for getting out of Iraq in the survey.
Women Overall: As Ruth Rosen writes, it wasn't just single women, but women overall who "sealed the deal" for Obama. As the data in the Week in Review in the New York Times reveals, "women constituted 53 percent of the electorate. ... Among those who voted for Obama, 56 percent were women and 43 percent were men." And as noted above, a whopping 70 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama. So, yes, the extraordinary female vote and yawning gender gap almost certainly came largely from minority and young women. "But even white, married women, who usually vote more conservatively, went for Obama, though they still constituted a minority of married women voters overall."
As Rosen adds, "Does this matter? Yes, and here's why. For years, women have been saying that we are invisible in this political culture. The consequence of this invisibility is that our poverty, our economic insecurity, our need for health care, child care, elder care, and equality in wages and training are also ignored." But if Obama is true to the women who brought him to power, that invisibility and those policy failures should begin to be fixed.
The Non-White Vote: In reviewing the numbers embedded in this election, another striking realization is how much of the Obama election was propelled by non-whites, as a significant majority of white voters cast their ballot for John McCain at the rate of 55 percent to 43 percent. In contrast, Obama got virtually all of the African-American voters with 95 percent, and 67 percent of Latino voters, as well as 62 percent of Asian voters, according to exit polls conducted by CNN. One interesting feature of this result was the unreliability of media conventional wisdom, pushed by pundits after the primaries, that Latinos wouldn't vote for an African-American when Latino voters went for Hillary Clinton in large numbers. The election clearly proved this to be untrue.
African-Americans: Of course with the 95 percent of the African-American vote going to Obama, black voters were a powerful pillar in the Obama victory. Early analysis shows that African-Americans increased their percentage of the electorate to 13 percent from 11 percent, and Latinos to 9 percent from 8 percent, representing 22 percent of the electorate. Overall, Obama got 19 percent of that 22 percent. And according to Michael McDonald, an election expert at George Mason University, "It may be that African-Americans voted at even higher rates than whites in this election. They will at least be on par with whites." Meanwhile, the number of Latinos voting may have increased by as much as a third, to mostly vote for a black man.
David Bositis, top researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told the San Francisco Chronicle , "The five states where the black vote was most important were Florida, Indiana, North Carolina Virginia and Ohio, because the election outcomes were very, very close, and black turnout increased." Among the states with the highest percentage increase for black voters was North Carolina, which Obama won in a major surprise.
The Hispanic Vote: The Hispanic vote grew in this election and swung even more decisively to Democrats by a 16 percent increase -- it was 67 percent for Obama vs. 32 percent for McCain. In '04 it was 59-40 in favor of Kerry over Bush. According to calculations by the New Democratic Coalition, Hispanics provided the margin of victory in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico, while the share of Hispanic voters overall in Colorado doubled; it increased by 60 percent in Nevada and 30 percent in New Mexico. Of the eight states that flipped for Obama from Bush, four had significant Latino voters. It is apparent that -- similarly to Pete Wilson's demonization of Latinos in California helped turn that state dark blue -- the Republican attacks on immigration helped make these four states more blue. If these trends continue, the Republicans are going to get more isolated.
Union Members: On the union front, the pro-Obama numbers are also very robust. Using exit poll numbers conducted for the AFL-CIO by Peter Hart, we know that 21 percent of voters were union members, or in a union household. Union voters supported Obama 67 percent to 30 percent over McCain, and in top-tier battleground states, the spread was 44 percent. "Working Americans," part of the new organizing strategy of reaching out to non-union members to be supportive of unions, went for Obama 67 percent to 30 percent, concentrated in key states. Despite McCain corralling the majority of voters over 65, union voters older than 65 went for Obama by a 46-point margin, while union veterans went to Obama by 25 percent. For the near future, 75 percent of union members say Obama's victory gives him a mandate to make major change, and 81 percent support the Employee Free Choice Act.
Young Voters (ages 18 to 29): Michael Connery's blog on the Web site for the organization Future Majority reports that young voters increased their turnout by 3.4 million, to 53 percent of the total, close to the youth voters' all-time high of 55.4 percent in 1972, when people ages 18 to 20 got to vote for the first time.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Research (CIRCLE) found that "young voters favored Obama by more than 2-1, forming a major part of the winning coalition. Overall, voters chose Obama over McCain by a much narrower margin of about 53 percent to 46 percent. This gap in presidential choice by age is unprecedented. Young people (ages 18 to 29) represented 18 percent of the voters in Tuesday's election, according to the National Exit Polls (NEP) conducted by Edison/Mitofsky. This is one point higher than in 1996, 2000 and 2004." An interesting electoral map showing what would happen if only young voters were counted shows a vastly blue country, where Obama would get 455 electoral votes to McCain's 57, and McCain would win only approximately eight states, including Alaska.
Gay People: CNN exit polls showed those identifying themselves as gay favored Obama over McCain by 70 percent to 27 percent, with 4 percent of the those asked identifying themselves as gay. More than any other presidential candidate before, Barack Obama included the gay community as part of his core speeches to voters, despite decades of conventional wisdom that has held that the mere acknowledgement of gay people could imperil a campaign. Obama acknowledged gay people when he announced his run for the presidency. He did so before national television and church audiences that were considered by some to be reluctant to associate with the gay community. He did so in accepting the Democratic nomination in Colorado, and he did so in his final campaign stops in Jacksonville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; and Raleigh, N.C. And he still won. The triumph not only marked an historic moment in American history -- with his election as the first African-American as president -- but a dramatic improvement in the political climate in Washington, D.C., for LGBT people.
I will leave it up to my colleague Joshua Holland to prove the vast details of how clearly the United States is a progressive country, despite the steady drumbeat from the pundit class, in his lead article published on AlterNet yesterday: " America Is a Center-Left Country No Matter How Much the Corporate Media Say Otherwise." The fundamental point is that years of public opinion data from unimpeachably nonpartisan sources show that on issue after issue, the majority of Americans hold progressive positions. And this is true not only of specific policy proposals, but of the fundamental perspectives and approaches that Americans bring to bear on issues.
One case in point from Holland's article: an Election Day poll by the Center for American Progress and the Campaign for America's Future asked "whether Republicans had lost because they were too conservative or not conservative enough." By a 20-point margin, voters chose "too conservative," including independents, who agreed by a 21-point margin. So, according to Holland, there's plenty of "hard data showing that Americans lean left on most substantive issues. But it's also a matter of common sense. During the campaign, the Republicans called Obama a socialist, clunkily accused him of being a 'wealth redistributor' and held up Joe the Plumber as an example of the burdens small businesses like Exxon-Mobile and JP Morgan would have to bear under an Obama administration. In other words, they made this election explicitly about ideology , and Obama kicked their collective ass." So on health care, trade, international diplomacy, corporate regulation, workers' rights, retirement security, environmental protection and most other matters of substance, the country is pretty clearly in the progressive camp."
In addition to Peter Baker's New York Times article mentioned earlier, according to many sources, Obama is also contemplating appointing former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to the same job, albeit one with enormous added powers due to the financial meltdown and subsequent bailout legislation. The possibility of Summers has already created a full-scale brouhaha in the progressive blogosphere and a petition campaign from the site Open Left against his appointment under the headline "No Foxes in the Henhouse!"
At his first press conference, Obama was pictured with his economic advisers, and in terms of those looking for significant change, and not Clintonistas, it was not a pretty picture. Of the 16 advisers in the picture besides Obama and Biden, in addition to Podesta, Emanuel and Summers, were Robert Rubin, Clinton's other Treasury secretary and high-level Citibank executive; Laura Tyson, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers; and William Donaldson, former SEC chairman. Of the 16 in the picture and three people listed as missing from the picture, only four were women, including Penny Pritzker, his finance chair and heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, a mere 21 percent female ratio. There were two African-Americans besides Obama, including Time Warner chair Richard Parsons, and one Latino, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. (Roel Campos, former SEC commissioner, was not pictured). Even though it was a meeting of economic advisers, there were no labor leaders present, and only former Congressman David Bonior, who has ties to labor, and Villaraigosa could be considered a progressive. (Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich was said to be there but was not in the photograph.) Obama was probably the youngest person in the picture.
Also present were heads of Google and Xerox, and former Fed chair Paul Volcker. Now of course it can be argued that Obama faces the biggest economic crisis since the Depression and he needs all the best and smartest help he can get. But a number of the people in the lineup -- particularly Rubin and Summers -- are at least partially responsible for many of the policies that caused the financial meltdown. So far, from every indication, Obama is fishing in a very small pool, and almost all familiar faces seem to be popping up.
The Big Picture
The Obama victory was fueled by the largest percent of voter participation since 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy Jr. were assassinated and Lyndon Johnson dropped out of running for re-election because of his unpopular support of the war in Vietnam. In case you can't remember, Richard Nixon was chosen president in 1968.
Eight million more people voted in this election than in 2004, and the turnout increase was most pronounced in battleground states with large black populations. So the Obama voter clearly represents the growing power of a multicultural country that will look only more diverse as time goes on, and more like Obama, who described himself as a "mutt" in his first press conference, when the discussion turned to the search for a White House puppy.
Progressive voters will have fundamental desires for change on many fronts, borne of eight years of conservative domination during the Bush era. The corrupt and radically conservative Cheney and Bush administration took a no-prisoners approach to virtually every policy area since 2000, shutting out Democrats and transforming the policy and governmental process. Much of government day-to-day business was privatized, and a great deal of policy-making ground was ceded to the corporate sector.
Every one of Obama's constituencies -- progressives, African-Americans, Latinos, single women, millennials, union members, independents, intellectuals, urban dwellers, Northeast and West-coast residents, and on and on, have been in the political desert, desperate for change, and angry and impotent for the past eight years. One of the reasons an inexperienced, barely known one-term senator from Illinois was able to beat Hillary Clinton, whom everyone was familiar with, was because Obama ran on the mantle of change, while many felt that Clinton was too much of a continuation of the politics of the past. This is part of the irony of so many early key positions being filled with Clinton veterans.
Of course there is the overwhelming challenge of navigating the political near term, fraught with minefields. Virtually every pundit and expert thinks Obama has been thrust into the most difficult situation facing a president-elect at least in 76 years, with Obama's two historical role models being Roosevelt, after Hoover's do-nothing politics led to the Great Depression, and Abraham Lincoln, who governed with a country lying in tatters after the huge death and destruction of the Civil War.
Nevertheless, no matter how you slice it, the voters who swept Obama into office -- ethnically, geographically, ideologically and gender- and age-wise -- are those who have been least represented by the U.S. government over the past eight years. And if the Obama administration were to remotely look like the population that swept him into office, it will need to be very different from anything in the history of American politics, from the Cabinet to the Supreme Court and from the White House staff to the thousands of key positions throughout the government agencies. Millions of people have their focus on Obama, their expectations high, their desire for change palpable, and their hope for a new era sitting in the hands of the new president. Time will tell what paths he takes, and what he builds for the future.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.