I hope Barack Obama means what he says about us “not belonging to red states and blue states, but the United States of America.”
There is a lot of talk about Mr. Obama’s “mandate.” People say he now wields the capital he needs—from both congress and the people—to enact liberal, partisan policies. Many liberal folks apparently envision a nascent Obama revolution to counteract the conservative shift that began 28 years ago with Reagan’s inauguration.
But such thinking is short-sighted for a number of reasons. First, Obama’s victory was impressive and important, but hardly a landslide. A director of media for the McCain campaign, when asked if his candidate had underperformed, deadpanned: “well, considering we have the least popular war since Vietnam, the worst economy since the great depression, and the least liked president since Hoover, I’d say we didn’t do too badly.” Considering the circumstances, Obama’s not-too-impressive final margin should serve more as a reminder of the country’s conservatism than as a supposed “mandate” for radical liberal reform.
In any case, exit polls still show that a plurality of Americans self-identify as independent, while more are conservative than liberal. America has not shifted to the left. Instead, a conservative but mostly independent America—either reacting against the current administration or putting faith in the Obama appeal or both—has voted in a man promising to transcend the political divide.
Additionally, Mr. Obama is a student of history and should know that hyper-partisanship isn’t likely to work anyway. It only took Mr. Clinton two years to lose his majorities in congress and Mr. Bush’s partisanship has led to the very national and governmental polarization that helped make Mr. Obama’s call for unity so appealing. It may be the case that the best way Mr. Obama could effectively evict himself from the oval office four years from now would be to further polarize the electorate by sticking to traditional blue policies.
But this is not to say, by any means, that Mr. Obama should be hesitant or timid. Quite the opposite: please, Mr. Obama, be bold! But do not be a bold Democrat; instead, as you promised in your victory speech, be the bold President of Americans of every ilk, color, party, and name. When you appoint your cabinet, avoid the temptation to choose only the party faithful. Instead, embrace contradiction—appoint republicans, independents, and democrats. Furthermore, as you decide which policy goals to pursue, do not choose some republican and some democrat—instead, rise above petty past ideas to forge new proposals that incorporate the best of both political worlds. Finally, when you speak to and about the American people, do not divide us into “real” and false, “patriotic” and not, “bitter” and sweet, or black and white; instead, please continue to recognize that all Americans—perhaps especially those who do not agree with your stance—are sincere and, almost always, are seeking the good of those around them.
That, after all, is the ultimate promise of an Obama presidency. Not that he will be the liberal savior come to undo what Bush has done. But that he we will be a man courageous, nuanced, and smart enough to understand that the formulations of both parties have fallen short and that our best days will be ahead of us only as we find ways to include all Americans in forging our newly-coalescing political identity.