It is an exciting and historic development for an African American to be elected president of the United States. People still alive can remember when racial segregation was enforced by law in some states.
Racial discrimination has not been completely erased and pockets of bigotry remain in this country. For a country that had to fight a bloody war to eliminate slavery to elect an African American to the highest office in the land is deeply significant, and should have an impact in the rest of the world as well.
We have not moved beyond race in this country, but we have moved a long way.
Now the question is how Barack Obama will govern. He will be well-advised to govern as he campaigned, from somewhere close to the center of the American political spectrum. Whether he can do so is the question.
The narrative some of his opponents have pushed, that Barack Obama is a dangerous radical who will weaken America abroad and impose a near-socialist agenda domestically, did not resonate with the electorate. But there were reasons — attitudes expressed in his autobiography, associations with the likes of the Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers that were closer than he was willing to acknowledge — to believe the closet radical scenario was possible. And he has no record of successful bipartisan activity.
Yet his political career (such as it is) and the way he campaigned suggest a pragmatic centrist, someone with the capacity to unite people, to listen to views that may differ from his own, to seek consensus, rather than an ideologue. His campaign also suggests significant organizational abilities. And that will be the most constructive way for him to govern.
It might not be easy for several reasons. He will have a strongly Democratic Congress whose leaders are ready for a strong policy lurch to the left. Many of his supporters will not be satisfied if he does not deliver nationalized health care within weeks of taking office. And many who opposed his election will be ready to pounce on anything he does as being proof that he is really the caricature they imagined.
Thus he would be well advised to do what many presidents, from FDR to JFK, have done in the past: to appoint members of the other party to key positions in his administration. Many have suggested retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Among others who come to mind are Indiana’s Sen. Richard Lugar or retiring Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. Perhaps former Secretary of State Colin Powell might return to government. Perhaps Sen. John McCain, who delivered such a gracious and generous concession speech, might be prevailed upon to serve.
Not only good politics but circumstances suggest a modest approach to radical change. President-elect Obama has two active wars to deal with,
and new challenges will no doubt arise. Resolving Iraq will not be easy. Afghanistan, graveyard of several empires, may be even more difficult.
Recent events — the Russo-Georgian war, the international financial crisis — have shown that multilateralism, the standard answer for modern “liberal” observers in international affairs, is a frail reed.
Domestically, the financial crisis has led to vast expenditures, the results of which will not be known for months or even years. This, along with recognition of the danger of destroying the market system while trying to rein it in, will constrain President Obama’s ability to make some of the radical changes some of his supporters hope for.
A modest agenda — maybe “change you can achieve” — and a bipartisan approach will be good politics and good policy. It will be interesting to see how he approaches the daunting problems before him.