Some Thoughts About Obama's Election
Today, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Perhaps no president in recent memory has started his term with greater expectations—many, perhaps most, of his supporters believe that his election is more than an election, but rather an Event of great historical importance. Even his opponents are a bit relieved to see a new face sworn in—President George W. Bush spent the last two years of the his term as a lame duck executive, and hasn’t seemed to be really in control of his own administration, much less the country.
For myself, it is encouraging to see that America has moved past its old prejudices to the point where a black (or really biracial, since Obama is half white) man can be elected president. On the other hand, considering that America is still de facto segregated and black communities are mostly among the nation’s poorest and nobody really cares, Obama’s success should serve as a reminder that while tremendous progress has been made in leveling racial inequality over the last half century, there is still a long way to go.
Inspiring as Obama’s election might be, it is hardly the “historical” event that many of his supporters think it is. In the grand scheme of things, American racism just isn’t that important, and it was quite benign compared to discrimination faced by minorities in other parts of the West. (And while slavery was a horrible evil, it paled in comparison to the colonialism practiced in other parts of the Western world during the same period). Calling Obama’s inauguration “historic” might salve the consciences of guilty (God knows why) white people, but in reality is only shameless hyperbole. (To his credit, Obama himself has mostly shied away from touting himself as “historic”; during the campaign, he mostly campaigned on his ideas and rhetoric).
If Obama’s election isn’t “historic”, it is at least important, since Obama faces challenges equal in magnitude to what the country faced after 9/11. Obama must deal with a collapsing world economy, an economy that is contracting after decades of irresponsible, credit-fueled growth. The philosophy that led to the worldwide recession were held nearly universally—there were very, very few people anywhere who foresaw the credit crisis. Obama will not only have to deal with the recession, he will also be forced to leave behind the ideas that laid the foundation for it.
Will Obama be able to solve this and other problems? His supporters think he can, even if they don’t quite understand the problems themselves. In reality, he probably won’t—an 875 billion dollar stimulus package probably wouldn’t work any better than the 700 billion dollars spent so far, and that sadly seems to be the centerpiece of Obama’s plan.
But to Obama’s supporters, that is beside the point. This important thing is that a liberal, black man has been sworn into office. The Republicans have lost, and George Bush (who they hate for reasons that really don’t hold up to careful scrutiny) is going home, and it will be a while (at least two years) before the Republicans have a chance to get any measure of power back. For many (most?) of Obama’s supporters, Obama’s election is analogous to having one’s football team win the Super Bowl—people care immensely, and have a vague feeling that a win would be a great thing, but if pressed couldn’t really say exactly why or how a win would really make things any better.
Of course, Republicans are no different. Many of them will repair to the citadels of conservative rhetoric, and quickly return with some interesting if irrelevant (and often stupid) attacks on Obama to sustain them while they get ready for next year, or rather the year after next. Whatever Obama does, it will ipso facto be a mistake in the eyes of many (most?) Republicans.
But for all the hyperbole and us/them pettiness, this is still a day to celebrate America. Every American can take pride in the fact that Obama won an election that was, for the most part, clean fought, and that a black man has become president less than forty years after the civil rights movement ended, and that America’s new President is a good and honorable man (albeit one with whom I often disagree). I have my doubts about Obama’s ability to solve our country’s problems—but I hope he will be able to.