Americans wake today to a new dawn, a new possibility.
You don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid to appreciate how extraordinary this is. We will look at one another with new eyes. We are a better, bigger, more generous, more optimistic people than many—particularly Karl Rove’s acolytes in the McCain campaign—assumed.
The world will also look at America with new eyes. For a shining moment, we will be once more that city on the hill, the example of a free people choosing a remarkable new leader. A similar choice—the son of a native born woman and an African—could not happen in Europe, in Japan, in China or much of Asia. Amazing grace.
It wasn’t easy. It took a candidate of remarkable intelligence, discipline and ease, organizing a truly exemplary campaign. It took the worst financial catastrophe since the Great Depression and the worst foreign policy debacle in Iraq since Vietnam. It took the self-immolation of Republican John McCain. It took Americans deciding not to fall for the old politics of division—not this time.
But this victory is grounded in far more than the campaign or the candidate. This is a country disfigured by slavery from the start. The Constitution even dictated that slaves would count as three-fifths of a person for apportionment (even though they couldn’t vote). A century and a half of slavery; 100 years of legal apartheid, known as segregation; a slow and hard struggle to overcome.
Yet this same country was founded on an idea—that all men (and now women) are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That same Constitution that counted slaves as less than human guaranteed the right to speech and assembly, freedom of and freedom from religion. Each generation has been given the opportunity and the mandate to struggle to extend freedom and to make America better.
Many sacrificed; many died to get to this day. Barack Obama, as he knows, stands on the shoulders of giants. So this is a time to celebrate ourselves and to honor those who came before. Hallelujah!
And now the work begins. Obama inherits the desert—with the situation far more dire than many, even now, understand. Manufacturing is at levels not seen since the deep recession in 1980. Consumers are cutting back spending. The banking system is still reeling from losses and shocks. The recession now has gone global. Homeowners have lost $5 trillion in housing values.
So forget about the routine chattering-class babble about how America is a “center right” nation and Obama must “govern from the center.” (For a good mashup of quotes from ThinkProgress, go here. David Sirota tracks the “center-right watch” from ourfuture.org, here.) With independents and moderates looking more Democratic and liberal on issue after issue, the claim that this is a center-right nation was misleading even before this election. Americans are voting for a northern, liberal, Ivy League-educated, African-American, former college professor to be president, someone who campaigned on raising taxes on the wealthy, affordable health care for all, investing in new energy, getting out of Iraq and against trickle down economics. Conservative nation?
Govern from the center? Americans voted overwhelmingly for change. And to be successful, Obama will have to be bold. In reality, the center has moved. Wall Streeter Robert Rubin now is for a large, deficit-financed fiscal stimulus. Conservative Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Christopher Cox now tells us “self-regulation” doesn’t work, and calls for re-regulating the banks. Alan Greenspan admits his ideology blinded him to reality—or at least that he got it wrong. “We’re all populists now,” says Will Marshall, a leader of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Wall Street wing of the party.
Mandates are not given; they are claimed. Majorities do not form; they are forged. The center is not frozen; it is molded by events, moved by leaders and movements.
But this Beltway clamor about the center serves as a warning to progressives. The entrenched forces of the status quo are already in motion. Obama takes office as the Reagan era comes to a close, bankrupted by its own failures. But change, as Obama says, isn’t easy. He said in Chicago Tuesday night:
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. … There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can’t solve every problem.
But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years—block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”
Even the best presidents need to be pushed to act. Even the most calcified Congresses can be driven to move. The best of the New Deal—Social Security, the Wagner Act that gave workers the right to organize, fair labor standards that gave us the weekend—came not from Roosevelt’s first 100 days, but two years later, in what became known as the Second New Deal. That was driven in large part by an active and mobilized labor movement, and by the growing political threat posed by a populist right—Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Francis Townsend—that gave Roosevelt both reason and excuse to move. “I agree with you,” Roosevelt reportedly told labor’s Sidney Hillman. “Now go out, and make me to do it.”
Obama will need that same kind of pressure. We will need to build an independent progressive movement to push for reform, to challenge those who stand in the way. So celebrate. And then get ready to work.