For one night at least, it was all about possibilities. Possibilities that Barack Obama, America’s new president-elect, weaved in a tapestry of patriotism and change, with his trademark eloquence — in that effortless baritone that starts from someplace down here.
For one night, a night of smashing victory unseen in American politics in nearly a generation, he exuded a confident humility that was beyond his years but seemed, in him, so natural and alluring.
It was a night that invited haughtiness. And make no mistake about it: His core supporters yearn for payback — over the Clinton impeachment, over what their lore says was stolen from them in 2000, over the frenzy into which each Bush initiative seemed to drive them these eight long years. But on this night, to his great credit, our new president would have none of it.
Be under no illusions: The president-elect knows where he came from and who got him to this point. “Change” has come to America, he proclaimed to a waving sea of jubilant supporters. Exactly what that change will be is not yet clear, but it would be foolish not to feel the ground beneath us shifting. Change will lean leftward. It will be statist. The questions are how far and how fast — and with his sweeping coattails that solidified Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, how far and how fast will really be up to President Obama.
It is here, though, that Obama, at least for one night, was at his most gracious. He addressed himself directly to us — to conservatives and other skeptical Americans who opposed him, often stridently.
On a night of glorious triumph for him and his ravenous supporters, the message could easily have been: Time for you bitter clingers to get with the program. It wasn’t. Instead, the new president spoke humbly to those whose votes he said he had not yet “earned.” He promised to be our president too — to listen with a heightened attentiveness especially when we disagree, which, to be certain, will be often.
Does he mean it? Here’s hoping so. What is so unnerving is that even now, after the longest presidential campaign in American history, in a country whose deep divisions should lend themselves to the media vetting of candidates from both sides, Obama remains an enigma.
The mainstream press, with its Watergate-bred self-image, its Sixties-driven J-school mission of sculpting rather than reporting news, and its intoxication by the historic moment, became Obama’s palace guard — determined to get him to the palace. Basic information about him remains unexplored: the circumstances of his birth, his immersion in a radical environment, his affiliation with a socialist political party in the mid-Nineties, his fringe opposition to medical care for infants who survive attempted abortions, and so on.
Is he the quietly effective radical strongly suggested by his hard-edged record and his confederation with anti-American revolutionaries? Or is he the centrist healer of his aspirational, inspirational rhetoric? We don’t know for sure. That’s why many of us opposed him, even against a deeply flawed (albeit personally heroic) Republican, the slim prospect of whose victory was as much a source of anxiety as enthusiasm.
Is Obama a Leftist revolutionary? He denies ideological mooring, insisting he is a pragmatist. That should bring some comfort, but it doesn’t really. In his formative community-organizer days, our new president mastered the groundbreaking work of Saul Alinsky, who made pragmatism the clarion call of a systematized, disciplined radicalism.