Electoral Consequences Big & Small
President-elect Obama ran a campaign that was arresting in its discipline. There were almost no leaks. But, in his very first twenty-four hours since the election, the news that he had offered the job of White House chief-of-staff to Cong. Rahm Emmanuel leaked to the press. This would have been fine if Emmanuel had accepted the job already but he understandably needs to discuss the matter with his family. So, the first major news about the next president has him waiting on someone else. Not good. Obama needs to have a stern talk with his new transition team and tell them to keep quiet or find work elsewhere, especially as the new administration takes shape.
Many Democrats were hoping to win a 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and they fell short. This actually will help Obama. It forces him and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate with moderate Republicans like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, and those negotiations will help Obama govern from the center. As well, any resulting legislation will bear that all-important label "bi-partisan." Obama won the presidency by winning among Independent voters, voters who by definition resist partisan labels. Having to cross with 60-vote threshold with centrist Republican votes will help him beat back political pressures on the far left of the Democratic Party.
The strangest Senate result also gives Obama and Reid an opportunity. The good people of Alaska have evidently voted to re-elect long-time Sen. Ted Stevens, making him the first convicted felon to be sent to the Senate. The Democrats could be forgiven for wanting to let Stevens take his seat and serve as an on-going reminder of GOP corruption, and the GOP will not have the votes to expel him from the Senate on their own. But, Reid should insist that in exchange for getting Democrats to vote to expel Stevens from the Senate, he gets a big, big chit for an equal number of Republican votes on a major policy vote, say, health care reform.
Obama and the congressional Democrats have to answer a question: Do they want to govern for four years or for thirty? If they resist the efforts of liberal special interests to push legislation like the Freedom of Choice Act, centrist voters will bolt. If they studiously govern from the center, let the GOP show its most extreme side (see tomorrow’s post on the future of Sarah Palin), and demonstrate basic competence in the provision of services, Democrats can craft a governing coalition that could last a generation.
Among those who shifted from the red seats to the blue on Tuesday were religiously motivated voters. According to exit polls, Obama even increased his margins over Kerry’s numbers four years ago among those who attend church every week, a demographic that had become one of the clearest indications of voting behavior. "We see Roman Catholics being the very true swing voters -- going for Gore, then Bush, and now solidly for Barack Obama, some diversification in the white evangelical vote, and Obama making inroads among all religious attendance groups, with the largest increase among the more than weekly attenders," according to Dr. Robert Jones of Public Religion research who joined a conference call on the religious vote sponsored by the group Faith in Public Life yesterday. Indeed, Obama won Catholics 55%-44% a remarkable turnaround from 2004 when George Bush won 52% of all Catholics.
The images of people celebrating Obama’s win all around the world were heart-warming. Not so the stern unsmiling face of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. Obama must brace himself for the hard fact that it is not in Russia’s or China’s or Iran’s interest to have a strong U.S. president, and that the leaders of these nations will act accordingly. Even here, though, it is impossible not to note Obama’s luck: the crashing price of oil will put huge strains on the Russian and Iranian societies which have been awash in petro-dollars.
Still, walking around the streets of Washington, D.C. yesterday, it was impossible not to notice a certain lightness in people’s steps, a greater readiness to smile to a stranger, and a pride that our nation had broken yet another barrier in her often uneven quest for equality. Last night, at the CVS, a group of fifty college students was camped out, quietly reading or talking, in the middle of the aisle. They were waiting for more copies of the Washington Post’s commemorative edition. When was the last time you saw college students waiting to get a newspaper?
Michael Sean Winters