Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

EDITORIAL >>How Obama won Tuesday

It is not often that an election can be called earthshaking — 1860 and 1932 come to mind — but if you voted on Nov. 4, 2008, you participated in one. History will have to judge one day what it meant after its impact has been measured over years, but even in the angst-ridden hours after the polls’ closing it was clear that the American electorate meant to cast out the old order and head in a new direction.

Earth-shattering enough is the election of the first African-American president in history — a young man with such a mysterious and unelectable name, Barack Hussein Obama, born of a native intellectual from the heart of Africa and a white woman from the Kansas prairie and reared by white grandparents in Hawaii. Who could seriously have contemplated such a thing even two years ago?

It is easy to invest too much importance in the symbolism of that event and to suggest or else to hope that it means that the United States has finally closed the book on the darkest chapters of its history, slavery and segregation. One election, even of a president, will not end the harvest from those seeds. Bigotry and suspicion were not absent from this election either.

But the election was even larger and more cataclysmic than that. If the appearances are borne out by the official results, Americans went to the polls with a fury unmatched in 100 years. Despite unprecedented early voting, people clogged polling places so densely that tens of thousands and perhaps millions gave up, and the election machinery in many places could not handle the new registrants and voters. Members of Congress or anyone else with even a casual association with the presidency of George W. Bush were apt to be swept from office. Democrats will once again have a strong majority in both houses of Congress and in the statehouses across the land.

We are not sure at this point whether the monumental election of 2008 was an expression of unusual hope or desperation.

Political scientists will have to figure out what accounts for the stunning Obama victory. He was the first to divine that people wanted change, badly. Being a Democrat in the midst of the vast wreckage of the Bush administration was an enormous advantage. Any Democrat might have won this year. Certainly Sen. Hillary Clinton would have won, and she would have carried Arkansas as well. But the intensity, we are sure, would not have matched that created by Obama — on the other side as well as his supporters.

We have another theory about what guided Obama voters. Famously, George Bush was the fellow everyone would like to quaff a beer with, though he had given up hard drink. People this time decided that intelligence and competence were better requisites in a national leader than chumminess. People had tried ignorance and ineptitude, and they had not worked. Obama ran a brilliant and flawless campaign for two years, avoiding the rhetorical blunders that beset Clinton and then John McCain, and following a 50-state strategy that had looked enervating but proved astounding. It is a pretty good qualification for running the country, though there are recent exceptions that defy the rule.

Obama’s opponents from the beginning to the end accused him of “elitism.” It was a favorite word of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, who graduated undistinguished after six years at five schools. Even Clinton, a Wellesley and Yale honor grad, had joined in the cry before she realized that it was not working. Obama graduated at the top of his class at two of the top universities in the world and then taught constitutional law at a third; John McCain ranked 894th out of 899 grads at the Naval Academy. McCain wrote of himself that he had been a screw-up in school and in the service.

A good academic record is not a full measure of a person’s leadership capacity, but voters recognized that running a country is not piecework. Brains are a good thing even in government.

It will take rare intelligence and much, much more to raise the country from the economic wreckage and its badly weakened standing in the world. Three Republican presidents have run the national debt past $10 trillion, and the government this year will add another $1 trillion to restore the credit system. It will take unusual genius to trigger a recovery when the national treasury is in such desperate straits.

People elected to trust the man with the brains yesterday. Now we must all wait with trepidation to see if he and this new government have the other intangibles to lead us across the great divide.