The Children Are Watching
America makes history, but the mandate is for moderation.
The Wall Street Journal: November 7, 2008
You’re lucky to live through big history. And you’re living through it.
The explosion of joy in large pockets of the country Tuesday night was beautiful to see, and moving. For me, at the end of the evening, looking at live shots of the throngs in Chicago’s Grant Park, I flashed back to 1960 and how it felt, as a child, to see that the grown-ups had elected a Catholic president. I can’t say we stood taller—we were Irish, we already stood tall—but yes, there was a wave of feeling: “What a country,” “What a development!” The other day, when I said that to the writer Henry Louis Gates, head of African American studies at Harvard, he told me he’d grown up in a Catholic neighborhood and had celebrated that night with his neighbors because he thought he was one of them. That struck me as a very American anecdote.
It is a matter of profound importance that everyone in a nation know that with whatever facts they start their life, there is a clear and open route to rise. It is a less great country in which routes, and heights, are closed off or limited by things that, if you some day get to heaven, you will look back on and realize were silly, stupid: class, color, condition. That country will be greatest that offers its citizens the most possibilities in which to find happiness. There is power to be had in the full unleashing of human capital. So: a great night for America. I’ve yet to meet up with a conservative, a Republican or a McCain voter not aware of and moved by this aspect of the election’s outcome.
I add one thing. The phrase I often worriedly think of when I see, on television, gross violence, cruelty, a vulgarity of character, erectile dysfunction ads, news reports that reflect a mean and cynical attitude toward America, and still-menacing if increasingly antique rappers is: The children are watching. They’re absorbing and understanding life via this darkness. Well, Tuesday at 11 p.m., as an old barrier that was rotting and waiting to fall, fell, I got to think it happily: The children are watching. And absorbing a better, deeper understanding of life in America.
Some wonder if Barack Obama is a hard leftist or more a pragmatic politician who simply rose in leftist precincts (that would be you, Hyde Park, Chicago). A less charged way to put the question would be: Is he a strict modern liberal, or possibly a man of some considerable moderate instincts? The obvious answer is: We’re about to find out. But I think the more interesting answer is: He’s about to find out. In the presidency, daily decisions become patterns become pictures become, in time, full-length portraits. In the Oval Office you meet yourself every day. It is going to be very interesting to see Mr. Obama meet himself in this way.
His biggest challenge? Not demoralized and reorganizing Republicans on the Hill but his own party, with a hunger for innovation and a head of steam built up and about to burst. And the incredible sense of expectation his supporters hold. When you think someone’s Moses, you expect him to part the seas.
Americans want change, and they just voted for it, but in times of high-stakes history they appreciate stability. And while we love drama in our movie stars and on our television sets, we don’t love unneeded drama in our government and among our govern-ors. This is already a dramatic time—two wars, economic collapse—and people are rattled. “Moderation in all things.” It should be noted here that the split in the popular vote was 53% to 46%. That is a solid seven-point win for the new president elect, but it also means more than 56 million voters went for John McCain in a year when all the stars were aligned against the Republicans. (Though it is also true that many of the indices for the GOP are dreadful, especially that they lost the vote of two-thirds of those aged 18 to 29. They lost a generation! If that continues in coming years, it will be a rolling wave of doom.)
Mr. Obama has a significant portion of the nation to win over. He acknowledged this in his sterling victory speech, when he spoke of “those whose support I have yet to earn.” He does have yet to earn it. Hint: They want peace, progress in the economy and nothing socially extreme. And they want to respect their president. Forget “they want to have a beer with you.” That was yesterday, when beer was cheaper. They want to respect you and look up to you; they want you to be a positive, not negative, role model for their children; they want to know you can lead as you ran, capable, Cool Hand Luke.
And they want you to handle whatever history sends over the transom, and that will be plenty dramatic enough, as everyone knows.
In that connection, an early word on appointments. Rahn Emanuel as chief of staff strikes many people as the choice of a jarringly partisan figure. It seems an unusual choice for Mr. Obama. He hasn’t staffed his campaign with fierce gut fighters but benign-seeming smoothies, the best kind of smoothie to be. And yet if you know you’re going to have to handle obstreperous congresspersons of your own party, you just might go for a known leader and discipliner of congressional Democrats. At any rate, props to Paul Begala for once calling Mr. Emanuel’s leadership style as “a cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.” During the Democratic Convention in August, Mr. Emanuel told me he goes once a week to a grocery store and talks to normal people about how they’re seeing things. That’s a good sign. So is the fact that he recruited candidates who were relatively moderate on the social issues in 2006.
It’s an old saying that personnel is policy, but it’s old because there’s some truth in it. The New York Times quoted a Democrat close to Mr. Obama’s appointments process as saying, “This can’t look like Clinton 3. He’s got to put his own stamp on it.” This struck me as a strange thing to fear. First, Mr. Obama has a way of putting his own stamp on everything, have we not noticed? His campaign staff was a reflection of him and answered to him; his campaign was what he wanted it to be. Second, would the American people so terribly mind something that looked a little like Clinton 3? They remember Bill Clinton’s years, holiday from history and all, as a relatively secure and prosperous era.
Can Mr. Obama claim a mandate? The answer: a firm no-yes. This was not 1980, with a landslide 10-point, 44-state win and the will of a clear majority firmly revealed. And yet of course it’s a mandate—a clean win, a new beginning, a solid Democratic victory in the House and Senate. A friend noted the other night that George W. Bush from the beginning governed as if he had a mandate, and he’d lost the popular vote in 2000. Presidents are presidents and claim what they claim. Mr. Obama won it the old-fashioned way: he earned it. He confounded history to get it. And because he replaces a president whose unpopularity has impeded his ability to govern, he is, in a way, president from day one.
What a thing this is going to be to see. What luck to observe it.
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