Senator Barack Obama of Illinois became President-elect Barack Obama right at 10:00 pm last night. Of the three elections in which I’ve been able to participate, and after one of the most exciting and interesting campaigns in modern history, this was perhaps the most boring and predictable result. In 2000, we waited for 36 days while officials in Florida and finally the United States Supreme Court wrestled with the ultimate outcome. In 2004, faulty exit poll data signaled a massive victory for Senator John Kerry; pollsters and pundits were stunned as the night dragged on and the vote turned for President George W. Bush.
Last night’s result was significantly more predictable. Obama had an edge over Senator John McCain; the only question remaining when the polls began to close was how large the victory would be. When all the votes are counted, it looks like Obama will have won a Clinton-sized electoral victory (likely 364 votes to McCain’s 174). He’ll have nearly 65 million popular votes, more than any candidate in history and with over 52 percent of the vote – the first Democrat to win a majority since Jimmy Carter in 1976. There’s no denying Obama’s appeal and his mandate in this election; he won, and he won big.
But once all the votes are finally counted, there will be over 57 million Americans who supported John McCain. Most of them are disappointed in the results. Many of them are angry. Some of them claim to have lost faith in this country. Some target Obama with outright disdain, determined to stand against him regardless of what he may do or where he wants to lead the country. Some claim to hate the man that will be our 44th president. Others are furious with the voters that supported Obama. They’re confused and distraught and are looking for someone – anyone – to blame. They don’t understand how a man like Barack Obama – who is, as e-mail forwards and campaign commercials have told them, a socialist, a radical and anti-American – could have won the presidency in the United States of America.
It may sound trite, but Obama won – and won convincingly – because of his message of hope. The GOP derided Obama’s message throughout the campaign, and after McCain’s defeat, those simple slogans that rallied so many may ring particularly hollow in Republican ears. But Obama does not own the rights to inspiration. Conservatives have simply forgotten that they once cherished the art of speechmaking and grandiose ideas.
In 1992, another president returned to the spotlight to rally his party for an upcoming election. This man, who had already completed a highly successful two-term presidency, came forth with his typical message of hope and optimism as he had done throughout his eight years in office. As he stood before the Republican National Convention in 1992 in support of the re-election campaign of George H.W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan, in one of his last public appearances, reminisced on his own service to the country:
“[W]hatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.”
Reagan represented an era of conservatism that was strong, optimistic and forever looking toward a hopeful future. His farewell speech in 1989 came full circle to his 1981 inaugural address, portraying America as a great and shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope. Reagan was a supremely gifted orator, and his optimistic message stood side-by-side with his firm conservative stances on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy. Barack Obama is not unique among gifted politicians who know how to appeal to America’s hopes – he stands in the footsteps of great presidents before him: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan.
In the eras of those presidents, even the opposition was able to acknowledge that these skillful politicians set and commanded the tone of the country. Even the opposition knew to acknowledge their inspirational messages and the potential that grew from them.
Barack Obama won for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was his message. His themes were relatively simple, and they were certainly consistent. “Change” and “hope” were words that dominated his appearances on the campaign trail. Critics, including myself during the primary season, asked what exactly Obama meant by “change” and “hope.” Where was the substance? As it turns out, those themes struck chords that raw policy never could. Americans were looking for a positive campaign and a positive message. They were looking for a leader in which they could believe. And they were looking for a leader who believed in them as much as they believed in him. They found the hope for which they were looking in Barack Obama.
Ask yourself what themes you most associate with the two campaigns of 2008. What did the candidates press while crisscrossing America? Obama’s themes were so apparent, so ubiquitous, that they are undoubtedly familiar to every voter:
“Hope” – this essential pillar of Obama’s campaign was positive and inspirational. He asked Americans to believe in his campaign and his message, and in turn, he often spoke of his belief in the American people.
“Change We Can Believe In” – Washington, DC always seems to be in need of change, but the partisanship and gridlock of the last four years represent the most toxic atmosphere that our nation’s capital has ever seen. Obama’s positions – a stark contrast to those of the Bush administration – were undoubtedly a change, but he asked Americans to couple the opportunity for change with a real belief that change could happen.
“Yes We Can” – Obama melded his first two major themes with a third that took a unique approach, claiming that real change would only come from the bottom-up, not the other way around. While politicians have rallied support at a grassroots level in the past, Obama was able to do it more successfully than any candidate in history, bringing in millions of donors, volunteers and supporters who otherwise have been disaffected with the political process.
McCain’s themes, on the other hand, were erratic, unstructured and sought mostly to instill fear and doubt in the minds of voters. His message was not one of hope, and no matter how hard he tried, voters did not buy that his message was one of change. Most pundits agree than McCain’s campaign had no central, underlying message that truly reached voters in the way that Obama was able to do. He hoped that “Country First” would be a slogan that would gain an unstoppable momentum, but even that message carried an undercurrent of uncertainty, as if the other candidate and the other party were not patriotic or self-sacrificing enough.
Many voters will recall McCain’s message as one that was obscured by accusations against Obama: dubious claims of terrorist ties and anti-American sympathies. They will remember how McCain labeled Obama a tax-and-spend liberal, a radical and a socialist. They will remember how McCain claimed that the freshman senator from Illinois was too young and inexperienced for the job, and they will remember the hypocrisy in his choice of the equally inexperienced and far more unprepared Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
It’s easy to see why McCain supporters are so suspicious of an Obama presidency; their candidate and his campaign spent millions of dollars trying to make their claims, their fears, their doubts and their insinuations stick. But Obama was able to overcome the challenge, and though both campaigns had their low moments, the McCain campaign will be remembered as one of negativity. Americans were tired of negativity. They were tired of partisanship and accusations and lines in the sand. They were tired of politicians devoid of inspiration and hope. They were tired of the very things that had brought the Republican Party so much success in a post-Reagan world.
Obama’s voters didn’t just want a candidate to support; they wanted a movement in which they could participate. And through powerful viral marketing and grassroots organization, the Obama campaign generated more support – both in terms of votes and in terms of money – than any other presidential campaign in history. His campaign and supporters expertly used social networking software and local organizations to encourage voter registration, volunteerism and get-out-the-vote efforts. They banded together to fight the flurry of rumors and false insinuations about Obama’s past. And, most importantly, on November 4, they showed up at the polls and voted.
On September 3 at the Republican National Convention, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama’s past, claiming she wasn’t sure what a community organizer really does. Two months later, the governor had a front-row seat to the most powerful community organized effort that America has ever seen.
Finally, Barack Obama won the election on issues. As powerful as his message and his organization may have been, he faced the traditional hurdles of a Democratic candidate labeled as a “liberal.” And perhaps he really is a liberal, but when a “conservative” administration has overseen the most massive expansion of government since the Great Society, labels become rather arbitrary and cease to lose their edge. The conservative mantle of smaller, less-intrusive government fell apart under the Bush administration, culminating in a massive bailout of the country’s financial institutions authored by the President’s staff.
Just as they were tired of messages rooted in fear and negativity, the American people were tired of the Republican Party. They were tired of wars without strategies; they were tired of partisan issues-of-the-moment; they were tired of an administration that did little to meet the challenges presented by health care or immigration reform; and they were tired of a party that fielded a candidate who refused to say the words “middle class” in three national debates, even in the midst of the most devastating financial crisis our country has faced in 80 years.
Whether Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are right or wrong on how they would handle a variety of challenges is not the issue. The majority of the American people felt that George Bush, the GOP and now John McCain were wrong on the issues – the pressing issues that affected our lives and our families and our pocketbooks. The American people were willing to give change, as different as it may be, a chance to work; a chance to make things better. And while a President Obama is likely to govern more to the center, a harsh reality that the Republican Party must face in the coming years is that the center has moved toward the Democratic Party.
I remember the outrage that so many Democrats and liberals showed after President Bush was re-elected in 2004. They didn’t understand how a majority of the nation could be so gullible, so stupid, as to vote for George W. Bush again. They made wild accusations about fraud in the election, and they claimed that the GOP was prepared to make all sorts of radical changes in the country: the draft would be reinstated, the rights of a whole host of minority groups were going to be rescinded and war with Iran was inevitable. I remember their outrage and their insinuations, and I remember how foolish they looked. They did not respect the choice the country had made, even though such a choice represents the fundamental promise of our country. They claimed that George W. Bush was not their president, and in so doing, they lost sight of what it means to be an American and participate in our political process.
Now the tables have turned. Conservatives have lost faith in this country. The nation is full of stupid, gullible and anti-American voters. President Obama will bring radical changes to the country. Work will no longer be rewarded; socialism will reign supreme. Obama will stifle our religious freedom, and he will take our guns. He’ll be a pawn of other world powers, meet with terrorists and tax us to death. Republicans are looking to blame someone – anyone – for the loss, and in so doing, they’re turning to more fear and more uncertainty, creating more worry and more unrest.
Their dramatization of events – their accusations – is equally ridiculous. They are no better than the dissatisfied Kerry voters who threatened to move to France. Most don’t know what they fear, but they believe they must fear something.
Barack Obama, for all his flaws, is not a socialist. Those who claim he is are uninformed, reactionary, sound-bite driven and unaware of what true socialism really is. Both campaigns offered plans in which the government funded support for those currently without health care. The government offering health care to those 45 million who go without will bring us no closer to socialism than have our other myriad government programs, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And as we’ve seen in the past, with bipartisan cooperation, the government can make progress in encouraging citizens to move away from certain government-funded crutches, as Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress did in 1996 when they cut welfare rolls in half with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.
Your religious rights and freedoms will not change under and Obama administration. He is not a Muslim as he has been labeled time and time again, but as Colin Powell so appropriately asked when he endorsed Obama, what if he was? Conservatives should recognize – quickly and clearly – that bigotry, regardless of reasoning, is no longer in fashion. A party that makes an issue of someone’s religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation is a party that will no longer win in the 21st Century. Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who attempted to generate fear among the electorate by insinuating that her opponent – a Sunday school teacher and elder in a Presbyterian church – may be “godless,” learned that those sorts of political dirty tricks are no longer accepted.
There have been 14 Democratic presidents in this nation’s history; none have ever attempted to take your guns or repeal the Second Amendment. This scare tactic was used against Bill Clinton, as well. Guess what? We are still able to own firearms, and the Second Amendment is still intact. Obama has always supported the Second Amendment and lawful, responsible gun ownership, and while he may disagree with conceal-and-carry laws, that’s far from an endorsement of the federal government swooping in and taking your guns away. If you’re a responsible gun owner acting legally, you have nothing to fear from Obama, or any other legal entity, for that matter.
Obama’s world view does represent a shift from what we’ve seen over the past eight years, but even the most prominent Republicans – including John McCain – have criticized the Bush administration’s engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and relations with other parts of the world. Ours is a global economy, and whether we like it or not, we’ve got to get along in the global community. Change was coming regardless of who was elected because the Bush administration has been such a poor steward of our foreign policy.
I could go on, but the point is, a lot of the fear and the uncertainty about an Obama administration is, for the most part, unfounded. I have no doubt that a portion of the country will have legitimate disagreements with his positions on a whole host of issues, but there are proper and improper ways in which to express those grievances.
To my conservative friends and colleagues: do not lose your hope, and do not lose sight of why Obama won this election. When searching for a group to blame for your loss, do not fail to look deeply at the Republican Party. Now is the time to ask why the party of Lincoln, Goldwater and Reagan has forgone hope and substance and become the party of Palin and Joe the Plumber; one, a radical overreaction to liberal “elitism” that champions intellectual minimalism, and the other an embarrassing caricature of an uniformed voter to whom the Republican Party so desperately wishes to appeal.
Now is not the time to fear what lies ahead; now is the time to take an honest look at what you truly believe, where you stand on issues and why, and what you are truly up against. Now more than ever is a time for you to be truly informed, not just with convenient and simplistic talking points, but with real and solid substance.
Unfortunately for his detractors, Barack Obama is no radical. He is, like Ronald Reagan, a gifted orator and a big-picture politician focused on optimism and participation. Please realize that you, too, are invited to participate in this change of power. You will not be left out; your voices will be counted, so long as you participate in the informed and respectful way that the electorate is beginning to demand. Do not turn your backs on this country. Do not turn your backs on your fellow citizens with whom you disagree. And do not turn your backs on your next president. He needs your support when necessary, and the country needs your informed opposition where appropriate.
Elections are hard-fought. They are often negative. And in the end, there is a winner and there is a loser. After your disappointment subsides, please – participate in the governance of this country as President-elect Obama is asking you to do. Help him, help our government, and help one another look for ways in which we can come together.
“Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain.
“These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.
“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
“Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”
–Senator John McCain, November 4, 2008
“In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.
“Let’s remember that it was a man from [Illinois] who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.
“Those are values that we all share. And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.
“As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.
“And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”
–President-elect Barack Obama, November 4, 2008