“If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman on the occasion of a distant election, “I’d name the still-small voice vibrating – America’s choosing day.”
On this day after voting day, as Whitman’s “final ballot-shower from East to West” finishes, we are reminded once more that an American election, aggressively campaigned and well conducted, yields not the measure of men or parties, but of the country itself. Despite all the talk of spin, strategy, polls and personalities, an election ultimately tells us what America can conceive, what it is capable of, what indeed it demands.
The demand at the start of the 2008 presidential campaign was for change.
Americans wanted an end to a war that should never have started, they wanted an end to economic policies that were widening the gap between rich and poor and pushing the middle-class into the yawning chasm between, they wanted to replace a president who been dubiously elected with one who had secured the trust of the great mass of Americans.
A unreasonably young Illinois senator recognized the demand, and the frustration that underpinned it.
With the most disciplined campaign run by a Democratic contender for the presidency since the days when Jim Farley was organizing Franklin Roosevelt’s races, Barack Obama made himself the tribune of America’s yearning for a transformational moment.
He was the physical embodiment of change – an African-American contender in a land that had only nominated and elected white men before him.
But it was Obama’s message that mattered.
He spoke to America in a language of common purpose that was starkly at odds with the blunt talk of recent elections. Pundits and critics praised and derided Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but they tended to miss the fact that from the start of his campaign the senator was not merely speaking – he was saying something.
Something about America.
The Democratic nominee’s final statement to the electorate on the eve of the vote distilled his message down to a single line: “I ask you to write our nation’s next great chapter.”
Note, please, that Obama did not ask voters to empower him to make the change, nor even to help him to achieve it.
“If you give me your vote,” he said, “we won’t just win this election – together we can change this country and change the world.”
And so America, with the audacity of hope, gave Barack Obama its vote.
The scope of Obama’s victory is historic not merely because of the change from the preceding demographic of our Oval Office occupants.
It is historic because of the political progress that has been achieved.
Obama did not merely win the presidency.
He won a governing majority that his party has not recently enjoyed.
For the first time in more than a quarter century, a Democrat nominee has won the nation’s highest office with a clear majority of the popular vote. a wide margin in the Electoral College and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
Here are just some of the measures of Obama’s victory:
* He has won the presidency with the highest percentage of the vote attained by any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win of 1964.
* He has gained a higher percentage of the popular vote and a higher number of electoral votes than George Bush attained before his post-2004 election declaration that: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
* He will a take office with a dramatically more Democratic Senate and a significantly more Democratic House of Representatives. In the Senate, the majority may not be a filibuster-proof 60, but it will be close enough for a persuasive president to appeal to moderate Republicans.
* He will arrive in Washington with the knowledge that he has disproven the cynics who suggested a majority white nation was incapable of choosing as its leader an African-American man born not to privilege or prominence but merely to the possibility of the American experiment.
Obama will arrive, as well, at a volatile moment in which he and his country will be greatly challenged. His many majorities give Obama a flexibility that other presidents have lacked — even Ronald Reagan had to deal with a Democratic House led by Tip O’Neill. But they take from him the excuses that a president can claim when government is divided.
Of course, the central theme of Obama’s political progression has been the bridging of division; the notion, expressed first in his remarkable keynote address to the Democratic National Convention of 2004, that: “[There’s] not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
That seemed a lovely sentiment in the summer of 2004.
It seems something more real — or, at the least, possible — in the fall of 2008.
America still has lines of division. But Obama’s many majorities are, in some, the measures of a unity not seen in some time. Obama won with overwhelming support from African Americans (96 percent), Jews (77 percent), gays and lesbians (71 percent), first-time voters (68 percent), Latinos (67 percent), Asians (63 percent), voters under 30 (66 percent), union members (59 percent) and women (55 percent). But, in key battleground states, the Democrat was taking one in 10 votes cast by Republicans, one in five cast by conservatives, one in three cast by evangelical Christians.
Obama was, as well, redrawing that map of red and blue states, winning across every time zone of the continental U.S.: all of New England, the Great Lakes states, three states of the old Confederacy, three states of the southwest and all of west coast.
The map is still red and blue. But the mix is such that it is possible to imagine a blurring toward purple. Impossible? The president-elect would suggest that we think again. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy,” Obama said in victory, “tonight is your answer.”
This is hope made real. And its potential is perhaps greater than even Obama’s most ardent supporters dared imagine.
Michelle Obama got in a bit of trouble early in the campaign season, when her husband was beginning to win caucuses and primaries, that for the first time she felt a full measure of pride in America. It was a silly controversy, stirred up to try and portray a woman who was making a patriotic statement as somehow disloyal or worse yet disdainful of America.
The truth is that the pride Americans feel in their country frequently varies depending on historic circumstance. There are times when we feel better about our country, and worse. There are times when we fear our government, and others when we see it as an extension of ourselves.
Election seasons test and measure our relationship with our country. A divided and inconclusive result tells us that the body politic is not prepared for progress. A clear and decisive result suggests that we are prepared to dream anew that patriot’s dream, and to go about the work of perfecting it.
Such is the result from the long election night that followed the longest campaign in American history. And as the sun dawns on a new day, it is perhaps a bit easier to hear, as Whitman did, America singing. And to detect a bit of poetry in the words of a young president-elect who tells us: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America — I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you — we as a people will get there.”