It's finally over.
Some two years after the beginning of what has felt like the longest election cycle ever, some seven years and change after most of the country didn't vote for the last President and the issue was hanging chads and Katherine Harris, and a few months after the election cycle hit full tilt, the election is over.
Barack Obama is the President-Elect of the United States of America.
If you listen to the pundits today, they're going to prattle on about the fact that he's the first African-American (please god, let that term die) President of the United States (henceforth, POTUS) and how that's supposed to be some huge accomplishment. They're going to compare him to Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther The King and marginalize all three of them in the process. Is it notable that a black man is POTUS? Sure, but it's little more than a footnote to the story of Obama, the most important chapters of which will be written starting today. The story isn't, nor should it be, that Barack Obama is the first black president.....it's that Barack Obama is the next POTUS.
After eight years of at best a general malaise, the American electorate has finally woken up and chosen a new path for this nation. It took a hell of a lot to get them there, and in some ways the perfect storm politically speaking to make it happen, but it's happened. After eight years of fear-inspired politics blending the worst of the GOP (hawkish foreign policy, corporate welfare, erosion of civil liberties) with the worst of the Democratic Party (expanded spending, expanded government) the neo-conservative experiment has finally come to a loud and resounding end. That's the good news.
The bad news is the state that it has left the USA in. To say nothing of the impending budgetary disaster that is on the horizon when the baby boomers start attempting to claim social security and medicare, President Obama will also inherit a further bloated bureaucracy, record deficits, record national debt, two wars, an energy crisis, an economic crisis which already includes $700b in government bailouts, and an America that has lost it's respect and standing in much of the world. And you thought coaching the Clippers was a shitty job.
Before I continue though, I wanted to point out one little nugget from last night that I thought highlighted excellently the difference in direction. When George W. Bush won his first election, during the speech his mantra was "I've been given political capital tonight and Iintend to spend it." And his supporters cheered, and in the shadow of Bill Clinton-their mortal enemy-they rejoiced at the great age of conservatism he was going to usher in. Contrary to that, we had Barack Obama saying, "to those who didn't vote for me, I will listen to you and be your President too" and asking for America to unite and work together to solve our problems. The difference in tone is just night and day, and I think that tone highlights precisely why Barack Obama was able to effectively rout a candidate that many people have a great respect for, a candidate that a lot of moderate liberals actually really like and respect, myself included.
It would be unfair to not comment on McCain's fantastic concession speech, and to note that despite everything in the election style John McCain should be viewed as an American patriot, a statesman, and a very good man. Had he not spent this entire election with George W. Bush as an albatross around his neck, and had he not diverted from his message to that of Republican campaign advisors, I honestly believe he could have won this election. And regardless of that and everything that's been said, I still have enormous respect for John McCain and his speech last night highlighted exactly why that is.
So....here we are....now what?
Obviously Barack Obama is going to have to build a staff. My hope is that he does so with a true blindness to party affiliation or ideology, instead appointing people based on their ability, intelligence, and vision. I would love to see Colin Powell brought back into the fold and Condoleeza Rice offered a chance to maintain her office (and no, not because they're black). I understand that he must have a staff he can trust and rely on, but if at the end of building that staff it leans to the far left I believe we will have the first indication that all this talk of bi-partisanship was little more than just talk.
In the meantime, he will be briefed further on the issues and in January inaugurated. And it is on that day, that the clock starts. President Obama will have his mandate, given not only the Presidency but party control of congress. The barriers to the change he promised will be as small as they ever are in American politics. In my mind he will have one year from that day to get the wheels rolling on the change-train before the mandate he was given begins to fade and the politics of the mid-term elections begin to be felt. The economy, the war(s), taxes, and energy are the primary issues he's campaigned on, and if by the end of that year he hasn't made significant progress on atleast two of this issues I believe the whispers of failure will be felt. If after three years he hasn't nailed down two of those issues, then I worry that the change we were promised will be little but a bill of goods.
President Obama was given this mandate, his challenge is to affect the change he promised while taking firm control of his party and reaching across the aisle to the other. If he lets the far left wing of the Democratic Party-the Nancy Pelosi's of the world-gain too much power and influence, then he will fail. He must govern from the center out, not from the left of center to maintain the trust of the American electorate. There will be a lot of bitter Democrats wanting to "run up the score" on the GOP for the next two years and he must stem that tide.
And I believe four years from now, his success on those fronts is what will determine whether we just elected the second coming of John F. Kennedy, or the second coming of Jimmy Carter.