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Thursday, November 6, 2008

How Obama Rewrote the Book

















Some princes are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers. But a few are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope. Barack Obama never talks about how people see him: I'm not the one making history, he said every chance he got. You are. Yet as he looked out Tuesday night through the bulletproof glass, in a park named for a Civil War general, he had to see the truth on people's faces. We are the ones we've been waiting for, he liked to say, but people were waiting for him, waiting for someone to finish what a King began.


"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," declared the President-elect, "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."
(See pictures of Barack Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.)
Barack Hussein Obama did not win because of the color of his skin. Nor did he win in spite of it. He won because at a very dangerous moment in the life of a still young country, more people than have ever spoken before came together to try to save it. And that was a victory all its own.
Remember this day, parents told their children as they took them out of school to go see an African-American candidate make history. An election in one of the world's oldest democracies looked like the kind they hold in brand-new ones, when citizens finally come out and dance, a purple-thumb day, a velvet revolution. A hundred thousand people came out in red states to hear Obama; a hundred fifty thousand turned out in purple ones, even after all this time, when they should have been sick to death of Hope and Change. In Michigan, people put an electric fence around their yard sign to protect it. NASA astronauts on board the International Space Station sent a video message encouraging people to vote; they did, from 200 miles up. A judge in Ohio ruled that homeless people could use a park bench as their address in order to register. A couple flew home from India just to cast their ballots. Obama's Ohio volunteers knocked on a million doors on Monday alone. That night, a Florida official locked himself in the Seminole County election headquarters and slept overnight with the ballots to make sure nothing went wrong with the vote. Early-voting lines in Atlanta were 10 hours long, and still people waited, as though their vote was their most precious and personal possession at a moment when everything else seemed to be losing its value. You heard the same phrases everywhere. First time ever. In my lifetime. Whatever it takes.
(See pictures from the historic Election Day.)
When it was over, more than 120 million pulled a lever or mailed a ballot, and the system could barely accommodate the demands of Extreme Democracy. Obama won more votes than anyone else in U.S. history, the biggest Democratic victory since Lyndon Johnson crushed another Arizona Senator 44 years ago. Obama won men, which no Democrat had managed since Bill Clinton. He won 54% of Catholics, 66% of Latinos, 68% of new voters — a multicultural, multigenerational movement that shatters the old political ice pack. He let loose a deep blue wave that washed well past the coasts and the college towns, into the South through Virginia and Florida, the Mountain West with Colorado and New Mexico, into the Ohio Valley and the Midwestern battlegrounds: you could almost walk from Maine to Minnesota without getting your feet wet in a red state. After months of mapmaking all the roads to 270, Obama tore right past with ease.
The victory poured down the ballot, bringing along a larger Democratic majority in both houses, though not as broad as some had predicted: Democrats widened their margins in the House and the Senate. The Republican caucus is smaller, more male and whiter at a time when the electorate is heading the other way. But the Democrats did not come close to their dream of a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, which suggests that people's hunger for change is tempered by their faith in restraint.
(Read "Congressional Races to Watch '08.")
When the race was called, there was a rush of noise, of horns honking and kids shouting and strangers hugging in the streets. People danced in Harlem and wept at Ebenezer Baptist Church and lit candles at Dr. King's grave. More than a thousand people shouted "Yes we can!" outside the White House, where a century ago it was considered scandalous for a President to invite a black hero to lunch. The Secret Service said it had never seen anything like it. President Bush called the victory "awesome" when he phoned Obama to congratulate him: "You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life."
John McCain, freedom fighter, has always seen the nobility even — maybe especially — in a losing battle, which takes the most courage to fight. When he called Obama to concede the race, the younger man honored the elder statesman. "I need your help," Obama said, and McCain offered it without reservation. "Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans," McCain told the crowd in a gracious speech beneath the Arizona mountains. "I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."
(See pictures of John McCain's campaign farewell.)
Remember this day. We now get to imagine, at least for a while, that the election of Obama has not just turned a page in our politics but also tossed out the whole book so we can start over. Whether by design or by default, the past now loses power: for the moment, it feels as if we've left behind the baby-boomer battles of the past 40 years; the culture wars that took us prisoner and cut us off from what we have in common; the tribal warfare between rich and poor, North and South, black and white; and the illusion, if anyone still harbored it after the past eight years, that what happens in Washington does not affect what happens everywhere else.
How He Rewrote the Book"She has gone home," Obama told the quiet crowd in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday night, recalling the grandmother who had raised him and shaped him and died on the eve of his victory. "She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America," he said, and tears we had never seen before streaked his face. "They're not famous. Their names are not in the newspapers, but each and every day, they work hard." One day later, Madelyn Dunham's grandson would be the most famous man in the world.
(See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
At a moment of obvious peril, America decided to place its fate in the hands of a man who had been born to an idealistic white teenage mother and the charismatic African grad student who abandoned them — a man who grew up without money, talked his way into good schools, worked his way up through the pitiless world of Chicago politics to the U.S. Senate and now the White House in a stunningly short period. That achievement, compared with those of the Bushes or the Kennedys or the Roosevelts or the Adamses or any of the other American princes who were born into power or bred to it, represents such a radical departure from the norm that it finally brings meaning to the promise taught from kindergarten: "Anyone can grow up to be President."
(See 10 elections that changed America.)
A nation doesn't much need a big President in small times; it needs one when the future is spitting out monsters. We've heard so much about Obama's brand-new voters that we easily forget the others he found, the ones who hadn't voted since Vietnam or who had never dreamed they'd vote for a black man or a liberal or a Democrat, much less all three. But many Americans are living through the worst decade of their lives, and they have anger-management issues. They saw a war mismanaged, a city swallowed, now an economy held together with foreign loans and thumbtacks. It took a perfect storm of bad news to create this moment, but even the big men rarely win in a walk. Ronald Reagan didn't. John Kennedy didn't. Those with the clearest vision often have to fight the hardest for others to see things as they do.
See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.


Obama belonged to a party that was bent on retribution; he preached reconciliation, and when voters were asked a year ago who had the best chance of winning, Hillary Clinton crushed him, 71% to 26%. He had to build a new church and reach out to the seekers who had lost faith in government or never had any in the first place. He ran not so much on any creed as on the belief that everything was broken, that the very system that produces candidates and frames issues and decides who loses and who wins in public life does little more than make a loser out of the American people. We need to start over, he argued, speak gently, listen carefully, find solutions, keep our word. It was precisely because he was an outsider with a thin résumé and few cronies or scars or grudges that he could sell himself as the solution.
(See 10 things that never happened in a campaign before.)
On the cold January night in Iowa that he calls the highlight of the whole campaign, he offered a glimpse of the possible. Caucus-night victory speeches are usually sweaty affairs in crowded rooms full of debts to pay off. But Obama got up in his tightened tie and with total focus, in front of a teleprompter so he'd be sure to get it exactly right, delivered what even skeptics called one of the great political sermons of our time. "They said this day would never come," he declared. "They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night — at this defining moment in history — you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do." He won women without the help of women's groups, blacks without the help of race pols, and that golden snitch of American politics, the youth vote, whose presence not only gave his campaign a feeling of hope and energy but made old people feel younger too. That was the first test of what was really on voters' minds: even in the face of two wars and a looming recession, only 1 in 5 cited experience as the highest priority. More than a third of them cared most about who could bring about change.
It was just one of many ironies that his historic ascent required blocking Clinton's. Experience can be a virtue, but it also means familiarity and wounds and scars, and it was hard to look at her onstage — her husband behind her, his gears visibly spinning — and see her as the future. Many who saw Clinton as the victim of virulent sexism could still be eager to move on to someone who did not fight in the last war.
Two Men, Two VisionsGiven a President who was radioactive and an economy weak in the knees, you could say the outcome should never have been in doubt. Seventy percent more people voted in the Democratic primaries as in the Republican; 9 out of 10 people say the country is on the wrong track. In that light, McCain was his party's sacrificial lamb, a certified American hero granted one more chance to serve, with enough rebel credits on his résumé to stand a chance of winning over disgruntled voters if Obama somehow imploded.
While it may not have been much of a race in the end, it certainly was a choice: not just black and white or red and blue or young and old, though there was a full generation between them. Over time, it's become clear that these men view change very differently. McCain sees change as an ordeal, a test of his toughness; Obama sees it as an opportunity, a test of his versatility. McCain sees change as reforming the system; Obama talks about rebuilding it from the ground up. McCain does not e‑mail. He became famous by riding a bus. And he brandished at every opportunity the values that never change with circumstances: duty, honor, country first.
(See pictures of John McCain on the campaign trail.)
Yet Obama, derided as so ethereal compared with the battle-tested McCain, was the clear-eyed realist in the room; he was a child of change — changed countries and cultures and careers, even his very name: Barry became Barack. You can't stop change from coming, he argued; you can only usher it in and work out the terms. If you're smart and a little lucky, you can make it your friend.
As if that choice hadn't been clear enough, McCain drew the lines a little brighter. The Veep choice always promised to be complicated for a solo pilot who resisted the idea of a partner at every turn, but now the Constitution required him to pick a wingman. He wasn't the type to look for someone to help him govern. But what about someone to help him win?
In case anyone imagined that we'd make it through an entire general election without an all-out culture war, Sarah Palin's arrival took care of it. She called herself a fresh face who couldn't wait to take on the good ole boys. But far from framing the future, Palin played deep chords from the past — the mother of five from a frontier town who invoked the values of a simpler, safer America than the globally competitive, fiscally challenged, multicultural marketplace of ideas where Obama lived. She seemed to delight in the contrast: she was arguing that "we don't really know Barack Obama" before she had even taken off her coat. She warned urgently that he wasn't qualified to be President even as leaders in her own party snorted at her lack of readiness; she rejoiced in visiting the "real America," the "pro-America areas of this great nation." Instead, it was an invitation for Obama to show how far the country had come. "There are no real or fake parts of this country," Obama fired back. "We are one nation, all of us proud, all of us patriots ..."
See the Top 10 Sarah Palin spoofs.


Still, as of mid-September, McCain, with Palin at his side, had closed the gender gap, ignited his base, delighted Rush Limbaugh and seemed to be having fun for the first time in ages. He hammered the point that he was the only one who had been tested in a crisis. It was working great — until he was tested in a crisis. The assumption all year was that if the Furies delivered turmoil to the doorstep of this election, the country would retreat to the safe choice and not risk a rookie. It was Obama's triumph that the financial crisis that might have buried him actually raised him up, let voters judge his judgment in real time, the 3 a.m. phone call that came night after night. It gave him, over the course of three weeks and three debates, a stage for statesmanship that decades of Senate debate could never have offered.
On the day Lehman Brothers evaporated, McCain was running 2 points ahead. In September, when the Wall Street Journal asked people who was better on taxes, McCain beat Obama, 41% to 37%. Over the next month, there was an 18-point swing, until Obama prevailed on taxes, 48% to 34%. The Obama campaign never missed a chance to replay McCain's quotes about the fundamentals of the economy being strong or that he was "fundamentally a deregulator" at a time when regulation was fundamentally overdue. The moment McCain tried to seize the moment, suspend the campaign and ride back to Washington to rescue the global financial system only to be shut down by his own party, he handed Obama a weapon almost as powerful as the crisis itself. Times were suddenly scary — and McCain was "erratic," "impulsive," reckless. He fell into a trap he couldn't get out of for weeks: any attempt to do something dramatic and different just dug the hole deeper. Every time McCain took a swing, as his cheering section demanded he do, those undecided-voter dial meters plunged. Six in 10 voters said McCain was spending more time attacking Obama than explaining his own positions, at a moment of crisis when people care what those positions were.
Over the course of three debates right in the heat of the crisis, voters got to take the measure of the men directly — no stadium crowds, no stunts, no speechwriters to save them. They were being told that Obama was a dangerous radical who hung out with terrorists. Simply by seeming sober and sensible, he both reassured voters and diminished McCain, whose attacks suddenly seemed disingenuous. A New York Times survey found that people who changed their views on Obama were twice as likely to say they had grown more favorable, not less; those who now saw McCain differently were three times as likely to say their view had worsened than had improved. And that was after the markets had shed a couple of trillion dollars. By mid-October, only 1 in 3 voters thought McCain would bring the country a real change in direction. He never got close again.
Eventually Obama's opponents moved past accusing him of celebrity and socialism to charging his family with witchcraft and warning that his election would bring on the End of Days, when Christianity would be criminalized and "God could take his hand of protection off of America," as Gary Bauer, who once ran for President himself, put it. Obama, meanwhile, used his immense financial advantage to run a half-hour prime-time ad that told his story, made his case — and never once mentioned McCain.
By the end, some lessons were already clear. Obama's sheer brute financial force, outspending McCain nearly 2 to 1, guarantees that the way we pay for our politics will never be the same — and money and power tend to flow as one. A new generation of voters is about to show us whether they dropped in to visit or intend to stay. The Democrats in Congress were handed greater power despite abiding unpopularity; we'll now see whether they understand that it's a loan, not a reward. And the repudiation of President Bush and his allies ensures that the conservative movement will have to sit in a circle, hold hands, light some incense and figure out what its members really believe in when it comes to putting their principles into practice. The legacy of a President who vastly expanded the national debt, the size of government and its reach into what was once called private enterprise is likely to haunt his party for a generation to come.
The Road AheadModern history is a cautionary tale of new Presidents who overreach and emboldened lawmakers careless with power. In her unsuccessful fight to hold her North Carolina Senate seat, Elizabeth Dole ran an ad predicting that "these liberals want complete control of government, in a time of crisis. All branches of government. No checks and balances. No debate. No independence." If Democrats like her opponent win, she warned, "they get a blank check." The rumbling started before the votes even came in: there was House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank talking about cutting military spending 25% and taxing "a lot of very rich people out there." Amnesty International set a deadline for closing Gitmo; the ACLU wants a complete review of watch lists within 100 days.
Whose side will Obama be on? The old Ted Kennedy liberals he re-inspired, the Blue Dog Democrats he courted, the new arrivals from purple and even red districts whose shelf life depends on a centrist agenda? He has talked about the need to fix entitlements, but try to pin him down on the Audacity of How, and he vanished in a foam of contingency. He has promised to end the war in Iraq responsibly, but the tension between end and responsibility tightens now. He voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, but there are bound to be far more claims on that pot than there is money available in it, and the three months between now and Inauguration Day are not likely to be kind to the new kid. Obama has been cautious at every turn not to commit himself to too many details. But he has made a lot of promises of his own. Clinton, for one, has no illusions about what lies ahead. "I remember very well, right after Bill was elected, we found out that the budget deficit was twice as big as had been advertised," she told TIME's Karen Tumulty. "I think that we're going to find a lot of snakes under the rocks when we start picking them up, looking at this Administration." Obama has had teams of people already working closely with the Treasury Department and the Pentagon in the event of a victory. They have submitted countless names to the FBI to be sure that they are packing security clearances as soon as possible. McCain mocked the presumption of Obama's "measuring the drapes," but Obama's preparations for a transition reflected the fact that the rest of the world isn't going to wait until Jan. 20 to find out what he thinks. At a time like this, there's probably no such thing as being overprepared.
His vow to bring people together will mean nothing if he just does what's already easy. He has to find real Republicans to put in real Cabinet positions, not just Transportation. He needs to use his power in ways that make both parties equally unhappy, to dust off the weighty words we need to hear, not just the uplifting ones — like austerity, sacrifice, duty to the children we keep borrowing from. The national debt passed $10 trillion in September; in the next month, we added $500 billion to it — the fastest, deepest plunge into red ink in more than 50 years. Will Obama end the double standard between how Washington works and how everyplace else does, the loopholes it defends, the common sense it defies?
"This victory alone is not the change we seek," he challenged the nation on Tuesday night. "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."
We get the leaders we deserve. And if we lift them up and then cut them off, refuse to follow unless they are taking us to Disneyland, then no President, however eloquent, however historic his mandate or piercing his sense of what needs to be done, can take us where we refuse to go. This did not all end on Election Day, Obama said again and again as he talked about the possibility of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And so, we are merely at the end of the beginning.







 
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