Yes, He Did

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states; we are and always will be the United States of America.

It’s the answer that — that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

(full transcript here)

It’s fascinating to see the transformation in this man’s standing since my first blog post about him in January:

If Obama wins anyway, he’s at least going to have to give a convincing reason why, which is as it should be.

Then in March (after his defining speech on race):

Despite Obama’s inexperience (which would be far less of an issue with Richardson on the ticket), I can’t help but wonder if Richardson is right in saying that as the disasters of Bush’s economic policies start to bite America (as they and his foreign policies engulf the world), and people use race to start looking for scapegoats, if Obama isn’t the candidate needed to bring the country back to its senses.

And as his platform started to coalesce in May:

And by lumping Bush and McCain together, he paints McCain as the heir to Bush; noone but noone wants that.

But particularly after a highly successful Democratic National Convention in August:

He left the criticisms of the campaign fundamentally addressed and defused, and set up the general election on his terms, whilst attacking McCain without losing the dignity which has defined his campaign. He gave up power on national television to prove he hadn’t been consumed by his own celebrity, and demonstrated a Veep in the wings who can actually get his promise of change enacted. This is what it’s supposed to be about.

Right the way through to the presidential debates:

out of the two of them only Obama was behaving in a presidential manner. McCain was rude, aggressive, dismissive, and in an election dominated (even this week) by ‘change’ and the need for it, came across as a throwback almost to another era.

Was this in the bag for Obama from the start? No. But his, Dean’s, Axelrod’s and Plouffe’s 50 state strategy paid dividends, particularly with so much money, leaving them able to take the fight to cash-strapped McCain’s home turf, and keep him permanently on the defensive. The huge voter registration drives to fed off Hillary Clinton in the primaries also had a lasting impact in states like Nevada, as did learning lessons quickly and early (the Wright affair). And remaining calm in a crisis (the ‘lipstick on a pig’ incident with Palin, not to mention the economic meltdown) convinced wary voters his temperament was sound; his intellect never having been in doubt. Colin Powell calls him a ‘transformational figure’, and I think that became a view shared by a simple majority of the electorate too – particularly the young, who were also engaged by his use of the internet as a fundraising and campaign tool, as pioneered by party boss Howard Dean.

Now he’s president-elect, what do I think? I think there’ll be some re-running of the partisan battles which marred the first Clinton administration, although Obama’s pick of Rahm Emanuel as Chief-of-Staff suggests a pragmatic ruthlessness in developing a White House team to hit the ground running with in late January, which should have him in a much stronger position than Clinton in 1993. Will he disillusion core supporters by prioritising the economic crisis ahead of push-button issues like DOMA repeal? Will he piss off our allies by not abandoning the hated missile defence shield (Medvedev is making it very difficult for him to follow his likely instincts)? It’s too soon to to answer most of these questions, but his approach can already be gauged. In his first press conference as president-elect, when pressed for an opinion on Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s letter of congratulation (itself highly significant), he said:

Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. And we have to mount a international effort to prevent that from happening. Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, I think, is something that has to cease.

I will be reviewing the letter from President Ahmadinejad. And we will respond appropriately. It’s only been three days since the election. Obviously how we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something that we should, you know, simply do in a kneejerk fashion.

I think we’ve got to think it through.

Obviously? That hasn’t been the conventional political wisdom for almost a decade, and it’s a relief to hear. And Gerard Baker reminds us:

It’s in danger of becoming a tired cliché even before it has happened, but the significance of an African-American in the White House can never be overstated. Even casual observers of America know the terrible history of the black man in this country and it’s no secret how much race still divides the US today. What happened this week will be remembered for ever.

As Obama himself points out, he’s proven that the ideals and political system of the United States remain, despite 8 years of evidence to the contrary, fully functional. That he also now embodies the greatest achievement of the Civil Rights movement is also staggering in its implications, both for race relations and for ethnic minority young people in the US. Whether or not he can manage the expectations that come with such a historic role remains to be seen. That he’s sensitive to them is one thing, but he’ll have to come up with a truly new politics not to risk being undermined by them.


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