This has been an historic election. There can be no question about that. The election of our first African-American President is a profound event. Despite this country’s greatness, its highest office had remained until November 4, 2008, the exclusive province of white men. That has now changed forever and most Americans, even many who did not vote for Obama, feel a definite pride in our having selected Obama to hold the highest office in the land.
But, while not wanting to rain on anyone’s parade, let’s not think that this election changes everything. I’ve read the comments of many comparing this election to that of John Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Kennedy, Reagan and now Obama have been described as transformational figures. It is true that Kennedy’s triumph, like Obama’s, represented the rise to political power of a new generation, a typically refreshing event even if scary to older voters. And Reagan’s triumph, like Obama’s, occurred during a period of great societal anxiety, reflected in 1980 by the Iran hostage nightmare and in 2008 by two ongoing wars and an economic meltdown, with a nation’s hope that the new president would heal America’s wounds.
Let us not, however, overstate the extent to which Kennedy or Reagan was a truly transformational figure. Kennedy was confronted by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, and turmoil in the area of civil rights that he did not live to address. Indeed, he hardly lived long enough as president to transform very much although the imagery of Camelot long survived his untimely death. And Reagan, while he has remained the darling of the Republican Party through the present, and did lift American spirits for a time, and held office during the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical empire for which his admirers give him supreme credit, also left a legacy of massive budget deficits, scandal, political and social divisiveness in the country, and the emergence of an international arena devoid of the relative stability of a bipolar world and increasingly characterized by regional instability and world terrorism.
And then there are the sentiments about Obama’s victory of the polemicist Michael Moore, who seems prepared to treat it almost as if it is the second coming. Moore wrote: “An African American has been elected President of the United States! Anything is possible! We can wrestle our economy out of the hands of the reckless rich and return it to the people. Anything is possible! Every citizen can be guaranteed health care. Anything is possible! We can stop melting the polar ice caps. Anything is possible! Those who have committed war crimes will be brought to justice. Anything is possible.”
But let us step back into reality. On a day on which many foreign leaders and common folk throughout the world celebrated Obama’s victory, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia would deploy a short range missile system on Russian territory bordering Poland and Lithuania. Afghan President Karzai, who had been rebuked by Obama during his world tour over his weak governance of Afghanistan, was perhaps responding in kind by mixing congratulations with a call for an end to American airstrikes that threatened civilian casualties in his country. And Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who aspires to become prime minister, warned that Obama’s stated readiness to talk with Iran could be seen in the Middle East as a sign of weakness. Welcome to the world stage, President-elect Obama!
Meanwhile, the buzz in Washington, D.C. over possible presidential Cabinet appointments involves the names not of fresh faces but of many of the same old retreads. Apparently according to NBC News, among the names in the mix for secretary of state are those of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who is purportedly angling for the post, former diplomat Richard Holbrooke, outgoing Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Georgia Democratic senator Sam Nunn. Purportedly, Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker are among those being considered for the Treasury post.
Barack Obama, who has shown himself to be a cool, calm, astute politician, smartly sought to damp down expectations for his presidency during his acceptance speech on Tuesday night in Chicago. He said:
"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
"I promise you - we as a people will get there. There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. …
"What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you."
Issues of immigration reform, health care, energy independence, the growing costs of Medicare and Social Security, let alone the current world wide economic collapse and growing national recession, the related housing crisis, global warming, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and homeland security, remain front and center. Not only are solutions to these issues not readily at hand, but there is no national consensus and there are deep political divisions on the nature of possible solutions to many of them.
One of my criticisms of Obama during the primary season, when I supported Hillary Clinton, was that he spoke majestically of unity, transcending red and blue state divisions, breaking political gridlock in Washington, D.C., and of bringing conflicting interests in American society together, but he offered few insights on how to accomplish those objectives. He will now have to focus on offering concrete solutions to many of these heretofore intractable problems and building successful coalitions to achieve them, as well as using the bully pulpit to attempt to forge a new national unity to the extent possible, while recognizing and accepting that a vibrant, strong, resilient America in which its people are able to enjoy freedom and equality is by its nature a pluralistic society comprising many competing and conflicting social networks and institutions and interest groups.
I’m very excited by Obama’s victory and am elated to have had the opportunity to vote for him for President. Let us, however, balance our excitement and optimism with a strong dose of reality in recognizing that change is an ongoing process, not all change is beneficial, altering the status quo is usually far more difficult than preserving it, and that President-elect Barack Obama, while enormously gifted, is not a magician but a political leader who no doubt shares many of the same human limitations that affect us all.