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Yes He Can

Obama's no radical, but he's been empowered by his fellow citizens to do big things.

Michael Fellman 5 Nov 2008TheTyee.ca

Michael Fellman, a historian and former head of SFU's Liberal Studies program, writes regularly about U.S. politics for The Tyee.

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President-elect Barack Obama

On the afternoon of a rainy fall day in 1962, when I was a 19-year-old sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio, I rushed into massive Finney Chapel, late as always, down a side aisle near to the front to see Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Maybe it was the light from the windows behind his head from where I was standing, but I swore I saw an aura around his head as he made a short but stirring speech to a rapt college audience. I remember thinking that that youthful, magnificent man would be president one day, and then dismissing the thought. This was the United States, I immediately reminded myself, where blacks still could not vote in the South and where most of the brutal institutions of segregation were still in place. Not in my lifetime, I concluded then, 46 years ago.

But that day has come; another brilliantly gifted and youthful black man has now become the president of the most powerful nation on earth.

Dozens of web sites are analyzing that victory and I cannot add much to what they will inform the Internet-savvy readers of The Tyee. Also, the results of many races are still inconclusive. For example, in Alaska, Ted Stevens, the 84-year-old king of pork, and a recently convicted felon, holds a slim lead in his re-election campaign. And the presidential results remain undecided in Indiana, North Carolina and Missouri.

Measuring the victory

Quick snapshots. In the popular vote, Obama won by around 6 per cent , the biggest victory margin by a non-incumbent president since Eisenhower's election in 1952. He won 43 per cent of the white vote, the highest number for any Democrat since LBJ in 1964. In the increasingly heterogeneous United States, Obama won 62 per cent of the Asian vote, where John Kerry won 56 per cent in 2004; 66 per cent of the Hispanic vote, 10 per cent more than Kerry; and an astounding 95 per cent of the black vote (Kerry won 88 per cent). Blacks compose 12 per cent of the American population, but they cast a disproportionate 13 per cent of the votes (up from 11 per cent in 2004).

Maybe someone who reads this column could do the math to figure out how big the impact of the black vote was this time. I would guess that it made the difference in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, states going Democratic for the first time in a very long time.

Similar calculations of the Hispanic vote shifts in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado would demonstrate similar effects in those states that changed from traditionally Republican to Democratic.

Class mattered in this election as well as race and ethnicity, particularly among poor and working class voters. Although it is hard to define class precisely, if one takes educational levels as a measure, Obama won 63 per cent of voters with less than a high school degree, where Kerry only won 50 per cent four years ago. Clearly the economic crisis trumped so-called value issues as well as bigotry for these voters, many of whom were the sort that McCain counted on to carry Ohio and Pennsylvania, which he did not.

Youth mattered as well: 66 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 voted Obama, as did 69 per cent of first time voters more generally. The Obama campaign clearly energized the enormous electorate, around 135 million Americans voted this time, about 30 per cent more than four years ago.

McCain's self-destruction

Why did Obama sweep the board? Lots of pundits will tell you that the Palin choice was harmful for McCain, and that that he could not separate himself from W -- Mr. Unpopular. Certainly the economic crisis must have been the deciding factor for many voters, for which they blamed the Republicans.

In addition, I think McCain is a rather stupid man who let himself be captured by the nastiest of operatives at a time where meanness was counter productive. His gracious concession speech last night indicated that an alternative persona might have run better.

Obama's contrasting calm and disciplined manner made a huge difference. Over time, his presence reassured voters that he was the real deal, that he had presidential gravitas.

During the three debates, as if to prove that he was erratic and ill-natured, McCain rolled his eyes and gnashed his teeth while angrily attacking his opponent. In response, Obama just calmly laid out his talking points while smiling a rather bemused smile as McCain shot off his mouth. It reminded me of the contrast between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the 1960 debates -- JFK had that same cool detachment, that same ironic grin as he watched his opponent sweat and fulminate.

The challenges Obama faces

OK, winning was the easy part. How about presiding over the disaster zone?

As I argued in a previous essay in The Tyee, I believe that Obama is an instinctive centrist who by nature would not push the envelope of governance all that far in normal times. But I also believe that during this financial crisis, the whole political spectrum has just jolted to the left, and that Obama and the increased Democratic congressional majority will therefore go in that direction. Here I depart from the wisdom of the talking heads who seem to agree that the Unites States is an inevitably conservative nation.

Reaganism -- "the government is the problem" -- is dead, and so is deregulation. Liberalism will be reborn in the ashes. Financial regulation will return, and in an international framework. The government will intervene in the mortgage crisis and will likely produce a national health scheme. The rich will be taxed. The government will get involved in macro-economic projects, not only bridges and highways, but a massive project in alternative sources of energy.

Coming: the 'Big Deal'

Obama will now put together an ambitious economic plan that he will introduce at his inaugural on Jan. 20. If not another New Deal, it will be a Pretty Big Deal. There will be action.

Obama had better hope that the United States emerges from what promises to be a deep recession by the mid-term elections in 2010. If it does, he will cement a new liberal departure in American politics, as big a shift as Reagan's election in 1980. And the Republicans will have to choose between wallowing on the reactionary right or contesting the votes in the new centre, just moved leftward.

On foreign policy, Obama will begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq. Alas, he also will commit more troops to Afghanistan in another losing war. He has to go there to prove that he is a tough guy, too, even though he should know better.

As for Canada, I predict that the free trade treaty will not be re-opened and that our blue-eyed Albertan sheiks will continue to clean up while polluting their province with the ooze from the oil sands.

Obama will radically improve the American image in the world, and a reinvigorated Unites States will inspire other people, even Canadians, who are not that easily impressed. Our own Liberals will take heart, and even Stephen Harper will discover something progressive in his clammy tactician's soul.

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