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.
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.
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.
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.
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