US Politics - 2008 Election

Epic Win: President-Elect Obama

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 05, 2008

America, you actually did it! Oh, have no doubt - we will be having a little chat about Arizona Proposition 102, Arkansas Initiative 1, California Proposition 8, and Florida Amendment 2. But for right now, it's nice to bask in the landslide victory you delivered to President-elect Barack Obama, who at this writing has 349 Electoral College votes (to John McCain's 162), with 270 required for victory.

Obama also won a clear majority of the popular vote - 62.5 million to McCain's 55.5 million - in an election in which some 14 million more Americans voted than in 2004 - 64 percent of eligible voters, the highest turnout in over four decades.

Indeed, this seems to be how Obama won: not so much by converting voters from the Republic Party (though so-called "Obama Republicans" were also a factor) but moreso by convincing many non-voters to become engaged. Voters in many precincts stood in line for hours to cast their ballots.

That may be the real legacy of his victory and his presidency: after eight years with George W. Bush in charge, Obama is on his way to restoring the idea that the US government is not inherently corrupt and incompetent.

Electing an Intellectual

Most of the commentators I've read have focused on the remarkable fact that American voters elected a black president, marking a tremendous milestone on the long march to racial equality and reconciliation.

But this election also marked another milestone: after eight years of a President who defined himself through folksy populism, faith-based policy and virulent anti-intellectualism, American voters elected an openly smart candidate.

Obama is a former activist who worked for three years as the director of the Developing Communities Project in Chicago; a magna cum laude Harvard Law School graduate and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review; an academic who taught Constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School; and an intellectual who ran an election campaign based principally on policy, not wedge issues and personal attacks.

Over his campaign, he demonstrated an invigorating willingness to talk to Americans like they're grownups. From his inspiring speech after the Iowa Caucus victory back in January to his insightful "A More Perfect Union" lecture in response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy to his calm performances during the presidential debates, Obama never tried to hide his intellect.

John McCain's campaign centred on Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) over who Obama might be (a Muslim? a terrorist? a socialist?) and what Obama might do if elected. Obama's campaign, by contrast, was primarily about what Obama would do if elected.

Charisma Plus

Granted, Obama's campaign has also traded heavily on his charisma: his easy manner in public speeches, press conferences and one-on-one meetings alike, his cool ability to think on his feet, his message of change, and his rhetorical and literal inclusion of his supporters in "owning a piece" of the movement through a truly impressive outreach campaign that drew two million volunteers (he was, after all, a community organizer before he was a presidential contender).

Yet if he had only charisma and nothing else, his campaign would have been a hot air balloon that would have deflated under the onslaught of the past several months. Despite the regular criticism from the right that his campaign lacked substance, Obama progressed smoothly from "Yes We Can" and "Change We Can Believe In" to a detailed presentation of his policies.

From his mildly progressive tax plan (reversing the Bush tax cuts to the rich and giving tax cuts to the middle class) to his obligatory Tough foreign policy (he's not opposed to war but to needless and distracting wars against the wrong enemy) and even his sensible ideas about science and technology, Obama leverages his pragmatic disposition with a refreshingly evidence-based analysis of what needs to be done after years of faith-based malarkey.

A Moderate Conservative

Just so we're clear: Obama is not a revolutionary, or a radical, or a socialist, or even particularly progressive by international standards. He's a moderate conservative (small c) with good instincts, a penetrating intellect and the sense to surround himself with smart, pragmatic, competent advisors.

After the eight-year train wreck that was the Bush presidency - starting with the epic failure to respond to warnings about an impending terrorist attack, peaking with the appalling mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina evacuation and culminating with the drearily predictable finance crisis and the wholesale pillaging of the Treasury as Bush and his cabinet prepare to clear out - a merely competent government may seem transformative by comparison, especially to a whole generation of Americans who has grown up with the idea that governments can't do anything right.

Orwell famously stated, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Americans find themselves in a time of universal malfeasance and cronyism, and on Tuesday they committed the revolutionary act of choosing a capable leader who promises not to strangle their government but to make it work properly for them again.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2008 at 11:39:26

Obama is not a moderate. He was categorized as the most left of centre senator in 2007 by the National Journal, a non-partisan organization.

See nj.nationaljournal.com/voteratings/

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 05, 2008 at 13:23:24

He was categorized as a lot of things during the election.

Thank goodness that's overwith now.

I wonder what chance he has of continuing these economic trends from past administrations:

http://tlrii.typepad.com/theliscioreport...

He's walking into the worst financial situation since the 20's/30's. I don't envy him one bit.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 05, 2008 at 13:28:44

Sorry, one more thing. I'd be remiss to not mention how impacting that moment was last night given the US history of race relations. I didn't follow this election very closely or have any particular bias towards either candidate, but having lived in the US I can attest to what a momentous occasion it is to elect a black president. I'm sure that regardless of which 'side' of the political fence you live we can all agree that it'll be nice to get the Bush years behind us. Hopefully the US will be able to rebuild their image and their influence around the world. They are a great nation with a lot to offer the entire world. I can't see things being any worse than the prior administration, but I guess time will tell.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2008 at 14:05:05

gullchasedship wrote:

Obama is not a moderate. He was categorized as the most left of centre senator in 2007 by the National Journal, a non-partisan organization.

Think of it this way: in any other industrialized liberal democracy, the right-wing conservative parties would never think of opposing universal health care - not even in Canada, which is the most heavily influenced by American political economy.

It's like roads or the fire department: something the state simply does because that's part of its basic mandate to provide the infrastructure on which the economy and civil society can reside.

By not advocating universal health care, Obama is to the right of the most conservative governments in the rest of the OECD.

Similarly, supporting the basic right of the USA to invade other countries (like Afghanistan or Pakistan) when it serves American interests - as Obama does - is inherently authoritarian.

Here's another perspective: the Political Compass has assessed the various candidates for the US federal election. Look at where they place Obama and Biden - centre-right, mildly conservative and mildly authoritarian.

http://www.politicalcompass.org/uselecti...

Interestingly, most of the European governments also cluster around the same area of the political compass, with a few (the Nordic countries) on the libertarian side of the social axis.

http://www.politicalcompass.org/euchart

The difference is that the European governments are mostly in the middle of their political spectra with individual parties considerably to the left of the middle, whereas Obama/Biden represent effectively the leftmost edge of the mainstream American spectrum.

http://www.politicalcompass.org/canada20...

The US has no political home for actual left-wingers (of whom there are many). The Democratic Party represent centre-right, socially moderate big business interests (notwithstanding the odd man out like Dennis Kucinich).

Some progressives and left-wingers hold their noses and vote Democrat as the less bad option that merely ignores their interests rather than actively opposing them; but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the Democratic Party is left-wing.

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted November 06, 2008 at 07:12:43

All you've told me is that compared to the rest of the world, Obama is conservative. And then you showed me a bunch of graphs where hardly anyone was on the left.

Since everything is relative anyway, my feeling is that if we moved the the centre axis on the graphs to the right an inch, we'd have a better indication of the true state of the world's political spectrum.

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By Queen Bee (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 08:47:31

Uhoh, someone sounds like a sore loser.

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By Political Spectre (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 09:06:02

@gullchasedship - But it's not all relative. Conservatives believe something specific about how society works, so do liberals, and progressives, etc.

Do you think people should be allowed to live in whatever family arrangements they want? That's a liberal position regardless of how the rest of society feels.

Do you think people should respect authority just because it's authorty and that makes society more stable? That's a conservative position regardless of how the rest of society feels.

An entire society can be conservative or liberal, and they'd be on the right or the left of the spectrum.

Also, the political compass is two-dimensional, not just left and right. The left/right axis is on economics (more progressive on the left, more laissez faire on the right) and the up/down axis is on authority (more libertarian on the bottom and more authoritarian on the top).

You can be a left-libertarian (like Noam Chomsky) or a left-authoritarian (like Hugo Chavez) or a right-libertarian (like Ron Paul) or a right-authoritarian (like Augusto Pinochet) so its a lot more nuanced than just left-right.

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By Typical (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 14:04:49

||But this election also marked another milestone: after eight years of a President who defined himself through folksy populism, faith-based policy and virulent anti-intellectualism, American voters elected an openly smart candidate.|| HAH spoken (well written) like a white middle class intellectual. Americans have elected LOTS of openly smart candidates in over two centuries but this is the first time in history Americans have elected a Black candidate. That's a lot bigger than your biased view shows.

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By Spectral Politicker (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 14:11:33

@Political Spectre - but the meaning of what it means to be a "liberal" or a "conservative" changes over time. 150 years ago, to be a "liberal" meant to oppose slavery, now just about everyone opposes slavery, even hardcore conservatives.

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By Political Spectre Again (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 14:30:43

@Spectral Politicker:

The issues change over time as social circumstances change, but the underlying reasoning does not. Liberals 150 years ago supported emancipation for the same reason that liberals fifty years ago supported inter-racial marriage and liberals today support same-sex marriage. Contrariwise, conservatives have opposed these various things at these various times for the same reason. Society moves this way and that, but people's reasons for how they feel about the issue of the day remain fairly constant. That's what I mean by the liberal/consevative spectrum is not just relative.

@Typical:

Looks like you're just projecting your own identity politics here, the author didn't say that it's not important America elected a Black man, only that most commentators focused on this and he wanted to draw attention to something else that's also important. No need to get oversensitive with someone who probably agrees with you on most big issues including race.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 21:03:22

Hmm... I wonder if we would have had all this adulation for Obama if he had run as a Republican and won?

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 21:58:31

probably only from those who aren't ideologically attached to one party or the other. I'm proud to have no affection or affiliation with any political party. Less political idealism would be great in our society instead of the hogwash that spews from the mouths of those who refuse to let any facts get in the way of their ideology. When dealing with politics, it's much simpler and easy to go on an issue by issue basis instead of being brainwashed by any of the multi-billion dollar parties.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 08, 2008 at 01:02:19

beancounter wrote:

I wonder if we would have had all this adulation for Obama if he had run as a Republican and won?

If the Republicans had fielded a candidate like Obama who had run a campaign like Obama's, that would tell me they were trying to put the politics of FUD, xenophobia and intolerance behind them.

Unfortunately, the remaining rump of the Party is likely to be even more concentrated extremism, since they lost many seats in moderate and swing states.

On the other hand, the knives are already out as recriminations fly about the abysmal McCain/Palin campaign, and the uneasy alliance between right-libertarians, social conservatives and religions fundamentalists may finally be fragmenting.

The bottom line is that the energy, dynamism and momentum of the Republican Party has run its course. After a three-decade ascendancy that culminated in control of all three branches of government, the faulty logic of a government that doesn't believe government can do anything right was finally revealed.

The party of fiscal responsibility turned a $200 billion surplus into a $500 billion deficit, doubled the current accounts deficit, and tripled or quadrupled the federal debt. Their inflationary solution to the dot com meltdown produced a new bubble that, when it finally collapsed, took trillions of dollars with it.

The party of small government created the biggest new government bureaucracy since the New Deal, started two wars (and launched missile attacks against several other countries), vastly expanded the government's power to spy on its own citizens, and created a vast global network of torture facilities.

The party of military prowess presided over the worst national security failure since Pearl Harbor, ignoring the many warning signs of a major terrorist attack while their president spent a month clearing brush in his Crawford ranch.

The party that created the EPA has gutted it with big budget cuts, Orwellian-named environmental policies that accomplished the opposite of their ostensible goals, and incompetent cronies in leadership roles who actively oppose the purpose for which the were appointed.

The past eight years of Republican government have managed the unlikely accomplishment of retroactively salvaging the image of Richard Nixon, which they accomplished with such a sense, sustained outpouring of virulent, full-spectrum putrescence that they managed to make Nixon look not so bad after all by comparison.

Then John McCain, the "maverick" who was going to change all that, surrounded himself with the same gaggle of advisors and consultants and strategists who orchestrated what may be the most disastrous government fustercluck in American history and ran an incoherent farce of a campaign that was characterized by the same sleaze, vile smears, fearmongering, shameless pandering and vitriolic attacks that characterized the Bush administration.

The Republican Party has lost its soul. The party frankly wouldn't know what to do if an Obama appeared in their midst. They'd probably run him out on a rail.

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