A Stunning Victory. Now What?

In These Times editors around the country react to Barack Obama’s historic victory

In These Times Editors

Tens of thousands of Barack Obama cheer their president-elect in Chicago's Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008. (Photo courtesy Sara Suleiman.)

Obama’s stunning breakthrough election as the first African-American president – at a time when he is the only black U.S. senator – is a testament to his personal qualities and the sophistication of his campaign. It obviously owes a lot to the well-earned unpopularity of Bush’s policies, which contributed to the financial crash. 

Now comes the hard part. Governing. Progressives must lay claim to this mandate, and they must move quickly.

But America had also changed: young white people are less racist; there’s a growing Latino vote; black voters felt energized and inspired; the growing ranks of highly educated voters are more liberal. It just hasn’t changed enough: a majority of whites voted for McCain (bolstered by Southern whites and thus reflecting a persistence of regional patterns, despite some Obama breakthroughs where the South is changing the most demographically), and older whites, despite their sense of misdirection for the country, also favored McCain. 

Although 60 percent of voters earning under $50,000 a year favored Obama, giving him the margin of victory as higher-income voters split evenly, a slim 51 percent majority of lower-income whites favored McCain. Even though Obama did better among whites than Kerry or Gore. Higher-income whites voted by a wider 56 to 43 percent margin for McCain, but Obama failed to capture the share of lower-income whites’ votes he should have, if a variety of cultural issues had not overshadowed their economic interests.

But Obama’s electoral success will soon be overshadowed by how well he governs, including tackling myriad challenges of foreign and economic policy disasters left by Bush, plus pushing a progressive agenda on health care, energy, labor rights, wage stagnation and economic security that his supporters expect. Already both Democratic and, more predictably, Republican establishment figures caution against ambition. But if he is going to succeed politically, as well as to deliver on his broad promise of hope and change, Obama must be daring, while working with his supporters to win the public to his agenda. 

The racial breakthrough will be most meaningful if it signals a breakthrough in progressive policy for the vast majority of Americans and for the country as a whole. Obama’s selection of the ultimate calculating insider, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), as his chief of staff does not bode well for visionary politics. But there’s always hope.

–David Moberg, senior editor

Now comes the hard part

When I left Chicago for Washington D.C. five years ago, George W. Bush had just given the mission accomplished” speech and his approval rating was almost 70 percent. Karl Rove was a genius, the K Street project was at its apex and Barack Obama was a state legislator who couldn’t get by Bobby Rush. He had about as much chance of being the next president as Dennis Kucinich. Progressives were obsessively studying Goldwater and Grover Norquist, worrying they were 30 years too late.

Fast forward to last night. At my house, even as Ohio went for Obama and victory seemed certain, people were holding their breath. They seemed convinced after eight years of Bush that something surely had to go wrong, punishment perhaps for casting those Nader votes in 2000 or staying home to obsessively refresh FiveThir​tyEight​.com instead of knocking on doors. Then came the tears as Obama took the stage – and dancing in the streets. Maybe there’s a precedent, but I can’t recall such a widespread outpouring of joy and relief. Cue the Sam Cooke.

Now comes the hard part. Governing. Progressives must lay claim to this mandate, and they must move quickly. The window of opportunity for real change will be incredibly short. We must channel all of the energy and innovation that turned this election toward the daily, grinding work of lawmaking and regulating and organizing. We must organize and stay vigilant while the worst of Washington’s entrenched interests are on their heels.

It won’t take long for the big corporate lobbies to rebound, staffing up with mercenaries who call themselves Democrats. The right-wing noise machine hasn’t been unplugged, and the blather about how we’re a center-right, post-racial nation is hardening into conventional wisdom. We haven’t truly plumbed the depths of the damage done by the current administration – which will take years to undo – and they’ve still got 76 days left.

Still, 40 years after King’s assassination and 25 years since Harold Washington became Chicago’s mayor, we’re waking up in a country where Barack Hussein Obama is president-elect. Even with all of the tremendous problems we face, even with the inevitability that Obama will disappoint us, you can’t help but feel star-spangled, Lee-Greenwood-proud patriotic at this moment.

Want that feeling to last? Let’s get to work.

–Craig Aaron, senior editor

An historic opportunity – and obligation

Like those of many others across the nation, Seattle’s chilly city streets erupted with impromptu celebrations. In the predominantly young, gay/​lesbian neighborhood Capitol Hill, every single club and restaurant with a television monitor was packed to capacity and filled with cheering revelers, while apartment dwellers took to their windows and rooftops shouting President Obama” over and over again, as if to convince themselves that this was about to be the case.

In the moments following Obama’s acceptance speech, downtown Seattle quickly brought back memories of the first day of WTO demonstrations in 1999, sans turtle costumes and the non-lethal” arsenal deployed by riot cops. While revelers poured in and out of swanky spots like The Triple Door and Union congratulating each other for Obama’s victory, at least 2,000 young adults from Seattle (and more than a few international visitors) attending an election-viewing party at the popular Showbox theater poured out into the streets, singing and dancing along with an exuberant marching band. The group temporarily took over a few blocks outside of Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market, while police lining the streets were more interested in talking about election results than disrupting the party.

Matt Tangvald had come to Union’s bar to toast Obama’s and Governor Christine Gregoire’s (D-Wash.) victories. It comes down to this,” he said. It’s been 145 years since [President Lincoln’s] Emancipation Proclamation, and this finally feels like a fulfillment of a commitment to equality that [Thomas Jefferson] made 232 years ago.”

Tangvald, a 33-year-old Euro-American man, is also openly gay. As we sat together talking, a less celebratory aspect of the day’s election-related results began to filter in to the point that Tangvald’s mood took a palpable dip.

As it turned out, California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages in the state’s constitution had passed, something that he and others around him felt was a bad sign of things to come. California’s Proposition 5, the most significant piece of sentencing reform on a ballot since the inception of the American War on Drugs, had been defeated by a wide majority, thanks to a last-minute, fear-mongering campaign funded by the prison guards’ union (who spent over $2 million on the wretchedly distorted television ads). The carefully researched and written initiative would have diverted tens of thousands of non-violent drug offenders into treatment, and provided people behind bars the substance abuse treatment they almost never receive.

Unfortunately, Measures 57 and 61 in Oregon also passed; the latter creates new, mandatory minimum sentences for several crimes (including drug dealing,” which can be prosecuted as such based on an informant’s testimony). It is estimated to lock-up at least 6,000 men and women over the next few years, necessitating new prison construction, and up to $1.3 billion in state debt.

It turned out that Nov. 4, 2008, was also the day that Tangvald’s sister was sentenced for possession of methamphetamine. She had already been in prison, he told me, and the family was trying to help her wrestle with the beast of addiction that had taken over her life. His sister hadn’t committed any other crimes, he explained, and the family didn’t want to see her put back in prison again if she relapsed into drug use while on parole – as so many recovering addicts do. But that’s what likely would happen given Oregon’s drift toward California-style sentencing. What’s worse, Tangvald admitted, was that his mom had voted for those measures. The lock-em-up-or-else” mantras had worked, he said while shaking his head, and his own family had fallen victim.

Here’s to an ongoing Yes We Can” mentality where the civil rights of our fellow Americans are concerned. No matter which way the hate- and fear-mongers want to spin it, they” are we.” We’ve got an opportunity and an obligation to straddle yet another American divide, and there’s no better time than the historic opportunity at hand.

–Silja J.A. Talvi, senior editor

Victory for anti-racist whites

My friends and I were in tears last night. Of course this is a great and long overdue victory for African Americans and mixed race people. But it is also a deeply felt victory for anti-racist white people. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center is today reporting that exit polls showed that race was a factor for eight percent of white voters, and those people voted for McCain.

But this figure does not capture that race was also a factor – a positive, determining factor – for millions of white people who wanted to repudiate our racist past (and present) and have the honor of voting for a black man for president. I have a very dear friend, he’s basically like my surrogate father, a 93-year-old white man, who single-handedly desegregated public facilities in Colonial Williamsburg in the early 1950s. In the 1960s he helped develop and name Head Start. Do you know what this election means to him?

Yes, we still have a powerful stream of racism in this country – McCain would have done much, much worse if Obama had not been African-American. But might we hope that this could be a first step, however tentative, towards our own kind of truth and reconciliation when it comes to race? We didn’t just see black folks crying in Grant Park and Times Square and Harlem last night. We saw white folks crying those same tears of joy. This matters.

–Susan Douglas, senior editor

Culmination of a pilgrimage

What an honor it was to be in downtown Chicago last night, as the world seemingly changed before our eyes and all hearts and minds focused on Grant Park. People grappled for analogies all day and night yesterday – the Bears winning a Super Bowl or the Cubbies winning a World Series, the World’s Fair of 1893, mardi gras… –but Obama’s victory last night was unique for Chicago. Less the drunken revelry or sexual orgy of a sporting event, the mood I witnessed was more a solemn celebration. Excited, definitely, but measured and relieved. Following Obama’s victory speech, the crowd emptied into the streets, and I shared numerous high-fives and hugs with strangers. It felt more like the culmination of a great pilgrimage.

I am hungover today from copious amounts of champagne…and I’ve never been so happy to say so. My brain is soft, and as such, I weep easily. Never more so than when I hear these unlikely, and still unexpected, words: President Obama.”

–Jacob Wheeler, assistant editor

Chicago segregated? Not last night

Two things stand out from last night. The first is the incredible support of the African-American community at Grant Park. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have been at previous Grant Park events like the Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza and Chicago Bulls championship celebrations and have encountered an overwhelmingly white crowd. For a city that has been described as hyper-segregated,” the racial diversity of the rally is something for Obama and Chicago to be proud of.

The second is the bulletproof glass that protected the president-elect on the podium. The two panes bracketed him, with one on his right and one on his left. They were cut out of the television shots of him speaking, and out of sight for the vast majority of the crowd. But in addition to the joy and the tears of those around me, the bulletproof glass was a stark reminder of the realities of being president.

–Ben Strauss, editorial intern

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