In my 32 years on this earth, I haven't been witness to very much profound history. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signifying the end of the cold war, was probably the biggest deal of my life until last night. That wall had been in existence for 28 years, the German nation divided for 44. The wall that fell last night with the election of Barack Obama has been with us ever since the first slave arrived on this continent nearly 400 years ago - our nation has been divided since its inception.
As a middle class kid from lily-white Stillwater, MN, I can't pretend to know the depth of affirmation that was felt by the black community last night. I have never known what it's like to feel as though the ideals and opportunities of our wonderful country didn't really apply to people like me. But it was evident on the many faces throughout the country, jubilant and tearful, that America had renewed itself in millions of hearts and minds. I had supported Obama because I believed he could be the thoughtful, pragmatic, concensus-building leader our nation has been hungering for, and because the Republican party that opposed him pandered to the worst aspects of our nature in trying to defeat him. I really hadn't considered until a few days ago just how much Obama's election would mean to the growing minority population. Good for them.
(But if you think America has turned a corner into an era of equality for all, I would point you to the results of the ballot initiatives in CA. There, in one of the 3 most progressive states in the union, voters showed more compassion for factory-farm chickens than for gays and lesbians. It's absurd that a state constitution can be changed by a simple majority of the voting public, but the sales tax cannot be increased without 2/3 of the vote. This structural problem is one of the many reasons that California is a mess right now.)
The voters delivered a mandate last night, but it wasn't for Obama, though his 52.4% of the popular vote was the highest total for a Democrat since the year I was born. And it wasn't for the Democratic party, whose net of 19 House seats and 5 Senate seats so far is actually lower than a lot of people predicted. The mandate was for change - change of legislative and regulatory priorities, and change of tone in Washington.
Many of John McCain's supporters were voting for change as well, hoping that his history of bipartisanship and independence from his party would lead to better things from the government. His exceptionally gracious concession speech was evidence that he had understood the message from the electorate. Now that the campaign is over, I hope he will return to the senate as the maverick he has historically been, putting his country ahead of his party and working with the new administration to solve the considerable problems that face us.
Obama's acceptance speech indicated that he understood the directive from the voters as well. He was humble and generous in reaching out to those who did not vote for him, suggesting that he has no intention of pushing around the diminished Republican caucuses. If he is to succeed as a President, he needs to govern in such a way that at least the moderates on the other side can get on board with his policies.
To that end, here are a few things I'd love to see happen between now and the end of January:
Build a Team of Rivals
Obama's transition is already off to a better start than Bill Clinton's, with a team in place and an offer out to Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff. Emanuel is a fairly moderate democrat, having riled liberals with his stances on welfare reform and free trade, so his selection tells us that Obama is aiming for the center.
He can prove it even more strongly to the rest of the country by emulating the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln. That group had representatives from both parties, in an effort to hold together the remaining constituencies of a disintegrating union. They had their own agendas, but Lincoln deftly placated each faction while convincing them to support his policies. Whether Obama has the same political skill remains to be seen, but he would do well to start off with at least a couple of moderate Republicans in his administration.
Many have speculated that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be invited to stay on in his post when Obama takes the reigns. Another obvious choice would be Colin Powell, whose endorsement of Obama a couple of weeks ago was influential in lending credibility to the candidate. Powell could resume his work in the State Department, which he left in frustration in 2005, or perhaps be a national security adviser. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel are Republican senators with great expertise - Obama might tap them as well.
Be a Check on the Congress
One of the many failures of the Bush administration was its unflagging complicity with the Republican Congress. Bush didn't veto a single measure until the Democrats took over in 2007 - 6 years into his Presidency. That's not the relationship between the branches of government that the Founders envisioned.
The Republicans made it an issue down the stretch that the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid congress would run wild with liberal legislation with a Democrat in the White House. Obama can soothe the fears of nervous conservatives by vetoing bills that do not pay for themselves or fit with the focus of his agenda. And, while we're on the subject...
Shake Up the Congressional Leadership
Why should Pelosi and Reid automatically get to retain their positions? There have been enough moderate Democrats elected in formerly Republican districts over the past couple of cycles to seriously pull the aggregate balance of the caucus toward the center. Pelosi is from one of the most liberal districts in the nation - she is absolutely justified in offering liberal policies that represent her constituency. But does she represent the Congressional Democrats as a whole? Why should she be the one who sets the priorities?
Reid has been at times obnoxiously combative with the Republicans. Will he be able to set the conciliatory tone the Democrats need if they are to deal with monumental issues troubling the country? Does he have the temperament to reach across the aisle and quickly move important legislation?
Remember, Congress' approval ratings are very near those of President Bush - abysmal. Reid and Pelosi had 2 years to show that they were going to change the way things worked on Capitol Hill, and I don't see that they were able to. I'd love to see each of them at least challenged when the new caucuses convene in January. Even if they are ultimately reconfirmed, it would at least show everyone that the Democrats are serious about trying to govern for the center.
Reconcile with Lieberman
With the filibuster-proof 60-seat majority likely out of reach for this session, Senate Democrats may be tempted to punish Joe Lieberman for his active support of McCain - especially his prominent speech at the Convention in Saint Paul. But, even though they don't really need his help in the caucus, it would send a positive signal to everyone if they kept him in. It would show that they don't intend to be punitive, that they want to work with McCain supporters.
The next few months will be a time of important choices for the new Democratic regime. If they don't take seriously the voters' demand for change in Washington, they'll find out in 2010 and 2012 just how quickly the voters can change their minds.