I’ve been traveling in New York and Texas, and it’s all Obamarama all the time. People mention Sarah Palin (there was appreciative laughter the other day in Houston when a speaker said wistfully that the Alaska governor may soon discover the power of silence), and now and then President Bush (not often—people move on with a finality that is brutal), but the topic is Barack Obama. There is continuing national curiosity at and discussion of the mystery of the man—what does he think, what will he do?—coupled with a great sense of expectation, and a high sense of anxiety.
The reasons behind the preoccupation are obvious—new president, new directions—but one new aspect sharpens it. A week and a half after the election, the idea has settled in that America just threw long. People hadn’t heard of Mr. Obama two years ago, they know they don’t really know him now, and they just gave him the presidency. America threw long, and America is praying for a dazzling reception. People want him to catch the ball.
Actually, how it felt this week was that there is a sense of suspension (the ball is in the air, it’s arcing over the field) accompanied by a sense of urgency (if he fumbles at this high-stakes time, more than a game is lost).
What is striking is how much hopeful support there has come to be. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings this week hit 70%. They’ll go higher. Part of this is people saying: We want you to do well. As you prosper, our nation prospers.
Going for him, too, is a broad sense that the problems the president-elect faces are so deep, from war and peace to economic dislocation, that voters will be patient, give him time, and be grateful for any progress. Modest improvements will be seen as small triumphs.
Part of the mystery of Mr. Obama is that he is cool, and this makes him different from his recent predecessors. We are coming off two hot presidents. With Bill Clinton, there was always a sense that he was trying to rein in his emotions and tamp down purple rage. He was red-faced, indignant at the reporter who had the temerity to pepper him with unexpected questions. With George W. Bush, also, there was an emotionalism, a sense of high sentiment with sharp rhetoric—you’re either with us or against us. In the case of both presidents it is arguable that emotions affected policy. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has an air of natural restraint, of reserve. He’s one cool cat, perhaps even one chilly customer.
Which adds to the air of mystery. But an air of mystery of course has power in it. It kept the House of Windsor afloat for centuries, until someone advised them somewhere back in the 1980s that it would be better for them if they acted more like their subjects. Their subjects, of course, were appalled. They wanted something to secretly admire. You be the king, I’ll be the slob.
There was also this week a continuing question of the meaning of the election’s outcome. Was the vote a realigning one? Does it mark the beginning of a center-left era? That’s the kind of thing you know in retrospect. The vote will prove to be a realigning one if Mr. Obama does well enough over a long enough period that people come to see themselves not as voters who picked him but as people who are his followers. If they choose to follow him, their self-identification as Democrats will sink in and formalize, and the vote they cast in 2008 will come to seem not a decision but an affiliation. Without affiliation, everything remains in play and will be in play in the coming years. If Mr. Obama doesn’t catch the pass and cross the goal line, it will mean this election marked a moment, not a movement.
It is obvious that Mr. Obama’s people have learned from the experiences of Bill Clinton and will continue to try not to begin with a gays-in-the-military, my-wife-is-revolutionizing-health-care series of errors that will self-brand them as to the left of the mainstream. They do not want to do anything that will leave the middle-right saying “Uh-oh” and begin to push away. The great question, however, is: Do Mr. Obama and his people fully understand what will make the middle-right say “Uh-oh”? His small joke at Nancy Reagan’s expense the other day was the sort of joke they make in the leftosphere. The rightosphere has its jokes too. But America doesn’t live in the leftosphere or the rightosphere.
Everyone asks whither the Republicans, what should they do first? They should recognize reality, absorb it and think about its meaning. Edmund Burke respected reality so much that he was accused by his enemies of worshiping a thing simply because it was. He did not, but he knew who man was and he knew that all actors in history must be aware of the level and tilt of the stage, and what is on the stage, and what can be moved and what cannot.
I believe renewal and reform will come from the states. There will be, in Washington and New York, a million symposia, think-tank confabs, op-ed pieces, columns and cruises; there will be epiphanies on the Amtrak Acela while delayed at Wilmington; there will be polls and books, and pollsters’ books. All fine and good, and a contribution. But the new emerging Republicans are likely to come in the end from the states, because that is where “this is what works” will come from. It is governance in the states that will yield the things that win—better handling of teachers’ unions, better management, more effective, just and therefore desirable tax systems. And, of course, more clean lines of accountability.
Something that’s new in this particular era is that the party will be rebuilding for the first time at a moment in which there is a national conservative media structure in place as a powerful player. The last time the GOP took such a drubbing as happened last week was 1976, after Watergate. The party roared back in 1980, but in those four years there was no broad conservative media presence. There was National Review, and Human Events, with their relatively small circulations, and this newspaper’s editorial page. That was more or less it. There was no talk radio, no Web sites, no cable channels, few competing magazines.
It is a question what exact impact the conservative infrastructure, and the great number of conservative thinkers and intellectuals, will have on a GOP comeback. The party has never attempted to reform and renew itself with so many national leaders, not only in the House and the Senate but on the airwaves, and in busy dispute in the magazines and on heavily visited Web sites. This is going to be interesting to see, and only in part because we’ve never seen it before.
Young Republicans, of whom I’ve seen a bit this week, should remember that nothing in politics is permanent. Everything in America, from businesses to families to political parties, is always rising or falling, because America is dynamic, not static, and change is the only constant. There is joy to be had in being out of power. You don’t have to defend stupid decisions anymore. You get to criticize with complete abandon. This is the pleasurable side of what the donkey knows, which is that it’s easier to knock over the barn than build it.