Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama: A New Approach

The election of Barack Obama as President represents a benchmark in American political history not solely due to the color of Obama’s skin but also due to the dominant issues that undermined and ultimately crushed his opponent John McCain’s candidacy.

Obama’s victory is significant in that he won more convincingly than Jimmy Carter did in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Obama broke new ground for the Democratic Party in recapturing states which had once been G.O.P. conservative strongholds: Virginia and North Carolina. Obama’s electoral victory has to be the strongest repudiation of an outgoing two term President’s legacy in American history since Warren G. Harding’s victory in 1920.

But when contemplating Obama’s victory one must remember that Obama’s campaign is not over (it never is in American Presidential politics). Even though Obama has sizable majorities in both Houses of Congress it must also be remembered that the last Democratic President to enjoy lockstep support from Congress was Lyndon Johnson. Carter never had support from Congress at all during his Presidency and Clinton’s support was extremely shaky during his first two years in office before losing both Houses to the G.O.P. in 1994. In fact Obama’s biggest enemy in Congress will not be a Republican but former Democratic (and now Independent) Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut. If anyone will be Obama’s chief gadfly it will be Lieberman unless Sarah Palin can convince Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to resign and be elected to fill his vacant seat—which is her intention despite her protestations to the contrary.

Even more likely, the Republicans in Congress will resort to the tactics they used during Bill Clinton’s Presidency: constant filibustering and the use of legislative tricks to stall key legislation; Cabinet, executive, and judicial appointments made by Obama for the next four years. Considering Obama’s mandate it is highly likely that the G.O.P. will adopt this strategy while they lick their wounds and start anew.

Another thing: those expecting another New Deal or Great Society from Obama will be disappointed. The days of massive liberal domestic programs have become passé. In reality the advent of supply-side economics as G.O.P. fiscal orthodoxy coupled with America’s transition from creditor to debtor nation along with the obscene rise in the National Debt (both of which did not exist in 1933 or 1965) along with the growing power of conservative lobbyists and media outlets makes any potential massive liberal domestic programming politically risky if not irresponsible. Bill Clinton’s failure to achieve health-care reform in 1994 is a prime example of this. Whatever spending Obama will do must be done with the revenues already present.

Will Obama’s Presidency be the dawn of a new Augustan Age (as the late poet Robert Frost heralded John F. Kennedy’s Presidency in 1961)? Only time will tell.

Actually it is the words of the late Civil War Historian Bruce Catton who best captures what America is feeling and experiencing right now in the wake of Obama’s victory. Catton wrote these words in his book Never Call Retreat, the final volume in his trilogy commemorating the centennial of the Civil War; with the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth due next year and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War due in 2011, Catton’s words are supremely appropriate.

Something had been won; but it was nothing more, and at the same time nothing less than a chance to make a new approach toward a goal that had to be reached if the war and the nation that had endured it had final meaning. The ship was moving through Lincoln’s dream, toward a dark indefinite shore, it had a long way to go, and the sky contained no stars the ordinary mortal could see. All that was certain was that the voyage was under way.

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