An historic election
Echoes of the ’60s and ’70s in yesterday’s choice of Obama
By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, November 5, 2008
CREDIT: CHRIS HONDROS, GETTY IMAGES
A voter fills out ballot at poll in Columbus, Ohio yesterday: The campaign might seem like a cakewalk compared with governing.
Campaigns are social stress tests. U.S. presidential campaigns are regularly scheduled exercises highlighting the country’s social, cultural and political strengths and weaknesses. This year’s campaign – to the world’s sorrow – also demonstrated devastating economic weaknesses. Still, campaigns also breed optimism, as candidates invite their fellow citizens to remember the past and assess the present, then invest one mortal with the future dreams of 300 million people.
For all the foolishness and frustrations of the two-year, $4.3-billion presidential quest, Americans should enter the 21/2-month transition to Inauguration Day proud of the peaceful, thorough, and open process that selected their next president.
In this campaign, tens of millions participated and shaped the historic outcome. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead during the general campaign switched at least three times.
From the “invisible primary” seeing who could raise the most money that began after the 2006 mid-term congressional campaigns through the first votes cast in the Iowa caucus in January, 2008, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed liked the Democrats’ inevitable choice.
Simultaneously, John McCain’s quest for the Republican nomination faltered. Only once the voting started did Barack Obama soar. Only after he won the caucuses of the overwhelmingly white state of Iowa did most people start believing that this young, first-term senator, who often described himself as the skinny guy with the funny name, just might win it all.
In this rollicking, gruelling, unpredictable 2008 campaign marathon, America’s voters – and politicians – found themselves particularly shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judged, but also partially tried to replicate, the 1980s revolution.
Both nominees embody America’s tremendous progress since the 1960s. John McCain represents the sea-change in attitudes toward Vietnam veterans which he helped trigger. During the war, many returning soldiers felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in U.S. culture, symbolizing patriotism, selflessness and sacrifice, helped heal many of that war’s national wounds.
Obama, who spent much of the campaign emphasizing how young he was during the 1960s, is a child of that decade, born in 1961. The civil-rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than most dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s audacity was in dreaming that his children would be treated as equals by whites; even he did not believe Americans would consider a black president so soon. And despite Hillary Clinton’s loss, her campaign – along with Sarah Palin’s – advanced the women’s revolution of the 1960s to the upper reaches of national politics.
As the 1960s cast its shadow, the 1980s’ Reagan Revolution loomed large, too. When John McCain was not channeling Theodore Roosevelt, he invoked Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offered the muscular, nationalist, patriotic leadership that McCain admires.
Obama admires that leadership style, too. Interviewed in Nevada in January, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that … Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Responding to the inevitable Democratic – and Clintonesque – onslaught, Obama explained he was not embracing Reagan’s policies, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.”
At his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama demonstrated a similar ambition and potential. Obama did not run to be a caretaker. Having matured during the Reagan Revolution, Obama wants to redefine liberalism as more community-oriented and more sensitive to tradition than the liberalism the 1960s produced; balancing rights and responsibilities, government power and individual prerogative.
Of course, the financial meltdown directly challenged the 1980s’ legacy. During the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made pundits predict 2008 would be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption explains Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. That hedge – and so many others – diminished in value with the stock market’s collapse.
Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic on economic issues. That is what tends to happen during campaigns.
Today, America’s new president-elect has to start preparing to govern. The 11-week transition to Jan. 20 is a gift, an opportunity for a healing honeymoon but also a test. And come Inauguration Day, the economy must be revived, the Iraq mess must be fixed, the challenges of a potentially nuclear Iran must be faced, the continuing threat of Islamic terror must be countered. Perhaps most important, the U.S. people need reassuring and reuniting after the anger and alienation of the George W. Bush years.
This campaign showed that Americans hunger for change and inspiration. Inspiring while making hard decisions that might entail sacrifice is an Herculean task. In the inevitably rough days ahead, the new president might start yearning for the clarity and simplicity of the campaign trail, where oratory could substitute for policy and soundbites could trump substance, even if the accommodations were less plush than those the White House offers.
Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008