From times of great desperation arise moments of great progress. The United States proved this on Tuesday by hammering the definitive nail in the coffin of centuries-long apartheid and oppression — a coffin which has taken over forty years beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to nail shut — by electing its first minority President. Massive worldwide reaction, excited and often emotional (including the declaration of a national holiday in Kenya, the birthplace of President-elect Obama’s father), shows that after nearly a decade of widely unpopular Bush administration policies the general world view of the United States has shifted to a much more positive light, and rightfully so — there’s much to appreciate in the outcome of this election. Along with the United States’ clear desire to shed its racist past, an unmistakable statement has been made: the U.S. wants to pursue a more inclusive approach to local and global issues.
Now that the election is over the question must be asked: what now? No matter how cooperative the Bush administration is during the hand-off of executive power, it will leave a vast array of problems for the Obama administration to tackle including (but not limited to) the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a shaky economy with rapidly growing unemployment, an eye-popping 2009 deficit estimated to be USD 988 billion, and issues such as global climate change which the outgoing President Bush seemed keen to ignore. All the more reason to take Mr. Obama at his word when he states during his acceptance speech, “this victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change”.
Over the course of this election Mr. Obama has defined the sorts of policies he wishes to enact during his presidency; yet there exists a growing air of skepticism regarding not only his capacity to pursue his agendas but also the likelihood that these policies will have the desired effects. There are definite hurdles which must be negotiated. The most obvious of these is the current financial crisis, which adds considerable budget constraints. Another potential hurdle is that the Democratic party has seemingly failed (pending results in four polls) to obtain the sixty Senate seats necessary to stave off Republican filibustering; at this point it is unclear how partisan politics will play out between now and the next congressional election. The Republican party has used the filibuster tactic a record 92 times during the 110th Congress, which comes to a close after one last “lame duck” session in November. Though it would be unfortunate if the next two years were littered with partisan bickering, it likely wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It would however be a sign that the U.S. desire to change their approach is not lining up with their actual effort to do so. The wake of Mr. Obama’s historic election has given us many promises of cooperation and compromise, but in a symbolic reality-check the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly five hundred points on Wednesday (a record day-after-election drop) after having posted record gains for an election day on Tuesday — a reminder that optimism is often very fragile if not fickle.
If the President-elect himself has any doubts, he certainly isn’t showing them. Mr. Obama appeared extremely relaxed as he gave his acceptance speech. Recognizing that now is no time for celebration, and is selecting the members of his administrative team. His confidence should come as no surprise. Throughout the entire political campaign, from The Audacity of Hope to a pre-election appearance on “The Daily Show”, Mr. Obama has claimed that times like these are when someone should want to be President because of the opportunity to have a meaningful impact in the country’s direction.
It remains to be seen if the wave of optimistic energy created by President-elect Obama will remain strong or break early (and if it does break, how far it ebbs). It’s unlikely Mr. Obama’s charisma will disappear anytime soon. But he is already under a microscope and expectations are staggering. He’s going to need that optimism to grow; his presidency — in fact, the future of the United States — depends on it.