“Those who say Obama won because of the financial crisis are telling only half the story. He won because he reacted to the crisis in a measured, mature way. He won because….”
Joe Klein: Obama’s Victory Ushers in a New America
Eleven months ago, I attended a John Edwards speech in the little town of Algona, Iowa. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Edwards had drawn a large crowd of mostly uncommitted voters to a local factory that made wind-turbine components. Two things soon became apparent as I interviewed a dozen or so Algonans before the speech. The first was that there were a fair number of Republicans present, a phenomenon I was beginning to notice all over Iowa. They were not yet committed to voting Democratic, but they mentioned their disappointment in George W. Bush, their frustration with the war in Iraq and their dismay with the right-wing religious drift of the state Republican Party. The last time I’d seen so many crossovers was in 1980, when Democrats – angry at Jimmy Carter and their party’s leftward drift – made their presence felt at Republican meetings, heralding the onset of the Reagan era.
The other phenomenon was a person. I was talking to a local businessman named Bill Farnham, who wasn’t yet sure whom he was voting for, “but I’m really impressed with the organizer Obama sent out here. His name is Nate Hundt, and he’s really become part of the community.” As he spoke, several other Algonans gathered around and began recounting tales of the young organizer who had come straight to Algona after graduating from Yale six months earlier. Hundt had opened a campaign headquarters in the H&R Block office downtown, joined a local environmental group, shown up for the high school football games. He was a constant presence at civic events. Eventually, Hundt became so much a part of the community that the town leaders asked him to stay on after the caucuses and run for city council. But Hundt had other work to do. The Obama campaign sent him to Colorado, Ohio and North Carolina during the long primary season, then back to Colorado Springs for the general election. “I’m still in touch with my friends from Algona,” Hundt said. “In fact, a few of them have come out here to help canvass. But I’m not unique. There are a lot of us who had similar experiences.”
Indeed, there are – an army of them, untold thousands of young organizers operating out of more than 700 offices nationwide. And they have delivered a message to Rudy Giuliani, who sneered during the Republican National Convention that he didn’t even know “what a community organizer is.” This is who they are: they are the people who won this election. They were the heart and soul and backbone of Barack Obama’s victory. They are destined to emerge as the next significant generation of American political operatives – similar to the antiwar and antisegregation baby boomers who dominated the Democratic Party after cutting their teeth on the Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigns of 1968, similar to the pro-life, antitax Reaganauts who dominated the Republican Party and American politics from the election of 1980 … until now. They are a preview of the style and substance of the Obama Administration.
Obama’s decision to expend so much effort on a field organization was quietly revolutionary and a perfect fit for the larger political philosophy that he described when I spoke with him a few weeks ago. Obama insisted that while creating a new energy economy was his No. 1 priority, “we can’t divorce the energy issue from what I believe has to be the dominant political theme underlying everything – the economy, health care, you name it. And that is restoring a sense that we’re growing the economy from the bottom up and not the top down. That’s the overarching philosophical change that we’ve got to have.”
That was the substantive heart of his campaign and of this election. It was a stark difference between the candidates. Unlike many elections I’ve covered where the stakes were small and the differences between the candidates were minor, this was a big election, with big differences between the candidates. It was a referendum on the Reagan era. Try as he might to dissociate himself from the Bush Administration, John McCain remained a classic Reaganite. He believed in the unilateral exercise of American power overseas, with an emphasis on military might rather than diplomacy. He believed in trickle-down, supply-side, deregulatory economics: his tax plan benefited corporations and the wealthy, in the hopes that with fewer shackles, they would create more jobs. Obama was quite the opposite. Unlike Bill Clinton, whose purpose was to humanize Reaganism but not really challenge it, Obama offered a full-throated rebuttal to Clinton’s notion that “the era of Big Government is over.” He was a liberal, as charged. But the public was ready, after a 30-year conservative pendulum swing, for activist government.
Although McCain gave a gracious concession speech, the old fighter pilot understood that his argument was a loser – perhaps he even understood that the Reagan revolution had run its course – and so his strategy was to make a big election small. He attacked Obama relentlessly, often foolishly, sometimes scurrilously. The public didn’t buy it. This was never more apparent than during the three presidential debates, which probably clinched the election for Obama. McCain was starting from a disadvantage. He had developed a bad case of Washingtonitis; he spoke Senatese, a language of process and tactics that sometimes approached incoherence. In 2000, McCain spoke with a bracing clarity. “The reason why we don’t have a patients’ bill of rights,” he would say, “is because the Republican Party is in the pocket of the insurance industry and the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers.” In the 2008 debates, he skittered from attack to attack, lacking the vision and patience to explain what he would actually do as President. Obama’s best moments were when he patiently explained what he would do about the economy, health care, education. Those who say Obama won because of the financial crisis are telling only half the story. He won because he reacted to the crisis in a measured, mature way. He won because in the second debate, he explained to a gentleman named Oliver Clark, in terms that anyone could understand, the financial collapse and the need for a federal bailout.
But this election was about much more than issues. It was the ratification of an essential change in the nature of the country. I’ve seen two others in my lifetime. The election of John Kennedy ratified the new America that had emerged from war and depression – a place where more people owned homes and went to college, a place where young people had the affluence to be idealistic or to rebel, a place that was safe enough to get a little crazy, a sexier country. Ronald Reagan‘s election was a rebellion against that – an announcement that toughness had replaced idealism overseas, that individual economic freedom had replaced common economic purpose at home. It was an act of nostalgia, harking back to the “real” America – white, homogeneous, small-town – that the McCain campaign unsuccessfully tried to appeal to.
Obama’s victory creates the prospect of a new “real” America. We can’t possibly know its contours yet, although I suspect the headline is that it is no longer homogeneous. It is no longer a “white” country, even though whites remain the majority. It is a place where the primacy of racial identity – and this includes the old, Jesse Jackson version of black racial identity – has been replaced by the celebration of pluralism, of cross-racial synergy. After eight years of misgovernance, it has lost some of its global swagger … but also some of its arrogance. It may no longer be as dominant, economically or diplomatically, as it once was. But it is younger, more optimistic, less cynical. It is a country that retains its ability to startle the world – and in a good way, with our freedom. It is a place, finally, where the content of our President’s character is more important than the color of his skin.