It came together spontaneously, the rally at Lafayette Park across from the White House, even before the concession speech by John McCain. The crowd was multiracial, but the vast majority was white. And young. Lustily cheering “O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA,” they were from a generation aching for a reason to hope. These young Americans were responding to Barack Obama’s clarion call to abandon cynicism and the politics of division that Karl Rove and the Republicans had perfected as an art form over the last two decades.
The joy of victory — and a decisive one at that — caught up people throughout this vast country in a collective outpouring that, for a few hours and probably a few more days, will dispel the fears of joblessness and economic collapse that lie around the corner. Many overcame residual racial fears, in the past successfully stoked by the right, to throw in their lot with a 47-year-old African American, who offered not so much a detailed program as an earnest promise to toss into the ash-heap of history eight years of doctrinaire free-market policies that led to the evaporation of their jobs and communities.
Obama asked for people to vote their hopes, while John McCain sought to mobilize their fears. But fear and hope came together in a way that squeezed out the Republicans: people inspired by Obama to enter a new post-partisan era came together with those who feared being driven to economic destitution by four more years of the Republican ideology of greed. Perhaps the most effective slogan, which Obama repeated tirelessly everyday throughout the last three months, was that a McCain victory would mean four more years of George Bush.
For this columnist, that one hour of being part of a communal outpouring at Lafayette Park was a personal catharsis. It was the fusing of several feelings: exhilaration that Americans had elected a Black man president, happiness that the bums that had brought so much misery to the world were finally being tossed out like the garbage they are, a strange but nice feeling of celebrating at a site where so often in the past I had stood in angry protest against U.S. policies, and, yes, a subversive hope that real change might after all be possible.
True, by the end of the campaign, the economy had outstripped the immensely unpopular Iraq War as the key electoral issue. But opposition to the war, more than anything else, was responsible for Obama’s decisive victory in Iowa, the primary that gave him a momentum he never lost. At that magical moment at Lafayette Park, this old anti-imperialist dog was infected by the audacity of hope, to use Obama’s campaign refrain; maybe, just maybe, this was one of those times that, to borrow Marx’s phrase, all that is solid could melt into thin air.
The space for substantial change is perhaps greatest when it comes to the economy, where the Bush people have put into place some measures of government intervention they hate with a passion but had no choice but to impose. The election has given Obama a massive mandate to turn from policies meant to stabilize capitalism to policies to promote people’s welfare. The question isn’t whether there is space for innovation, but whether Obama will go farther and make transformative moves in the ownership and control of the economy. Will we simply have a return to old-fashioned Keynesianism or will we finally move decisively toward a social democratic regime that truly subordinates the market to society? That he is said to have surrounded himself with Democratic neoliberals like Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, and Paul Volcker is cause for concern but hardly alarm at this point. Obama knows that the vote was a referendum against neoliberalism, whether of the doctrinal Reagan variety or the more pragmatic Clinton kind.
Foreign policy is another matter. One of the key themes Obama hammered home during the campaign was that Iraq was the wrong war and Afghanistan was the place to draw the line in the sand against al-Qaeda and their allies, the Taliban. To outmaneuver McCain and the right during the campaign, he probably assessed this as tactically unavoidable, just like his awful pro-Zionist statements. But to translate this electoral rhetoric into policy would be to invite a disaster. Pouring more troops into Afghanistan, which has one of the most ideal terrains for guerrilla war, won’t work. And buying off some commanders of the Taliban the way Gen. David Petraeus bought off some of the Sunni tribes in Iraq won’t work either, since the Taliban are a very cohesive force ideologically, with Islamic fundamentalism and Afghan nationalism serving the function that communism and nationalism played in Vietnam. Afghanistan, in short, can no longer be stabilized with either hard power or soft power, or both together. The fate of both the British and the Soviets, who had to hightail it out of the country in defeat and shame, stares America in the face. The only alternative is to cut and cut cleanly right now, and withdraw with a modicum of honor and order.
During the campaign, Obama showed himself to be a pragmatist who was willing to court unpopularity by going back on his word in order to reach his strategic goal. This was the case when he reversed himself on public financing for his campaign. The negative fallout was slight, since progressives understood the aim was to win the election and the huge outpouring of financial support via the Internet was key to overcoming the financial advantage traditionally enjoyed by Republicans. Following through with his promise to withdraw from Iraq with a firm timetable and reversing himself on Afghanistan will elicit thunder on the right. But at a time when most of the population cares little about “American credibility,” the consequences will be manageable. With the costs of the Iraq War alone now hitting $1 trillion, the economic rationale for extrication from the Middle East at a time of domestic distress is quite powerful.
The first 100 days of Obama’s presidency will be, in the usual fashion, a honeymoon with the American people. This would be the time to decisively get rid of two millstones — Iraq and Afghanistan — the Bush administration would love to foist on him and break up the coalition that carried him to the White House. This will clear the way for focusing on the truly gigantic task ahead, which is to transform the American economy and the global economy. But he has to act fast, taking advantage of the heady days of his romance with American people and the disarray of the Right.
Will he do it? Probably not. But then again, one of the man’s greatest assets has been his ability to reverse course, to surprise.