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Great Expectations For
President Obama

If you are an American patriot, you ought to wish President-elect Barack Obama well. John McCain’s gracious concession speech said it well:

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.

Indeed we are, and only a fool wishes an incoming President ill or prays for the failure of his administration. In the United Kingdom they refer to Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, which basically means one accepts the legitimacy of the system and the right of the person to hold office — though one may choose to battle over policy choices. Indeed there is the implication in the concept that an important role of the party out of power is to analyze and critique policies lest the party in power become lazy or corrupt.

Republicans who are despondent and Democrats who feel that history has turned ought both to reflect on the fluidity of public opinion. In 1964, the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, lost in a landslide that makes the Obama win seem like a squeaker. Goldwater lost 16 states more than McCain and received 122 fewer electoral votes. Goldwater won only 38.5% whereas McCain won about 46% of the popular vote.

Just four short years later, Richard Milhous Nixon, the Republican candidate, was elected President.

Completely beyond the policies that Barack Obama might implement, we had two concerns about the campaign:

First, we felt that Barack Obama’s lack of a record was actually a big part of his appeal. Over a third of the people who voted for him did so because they were in favor of “change” — a concept without real content. Obviously, change can be good or bad. What this really means is that Senator Obama’s lack of a record provided an opportunity for Americans to project onto him whatever change they, personally, would like to see in America.

This is worrisome because it reminded us of what has happened in the area of Supreme Court nominations. Antonin Scalia, well known as a conservative jurist at the time he was nominated, was confirmed by the senate virtually unanimously. He was thought of as a brilliant scholar and a good lawyer and a fair man.

Today he would not be confirmed. In a career as a University Professor and appellate court judge, he had simply expressed too many thoughts on divisive issues. So now, when any President nominates someone to the Supreme Court, the President is somehow supposed to find brilliant scholars on constitutional issues who have never written a word or ever discussed or even thought about the great constitutional questions of our time, issues such as abortion.

The problem extends to ambitious law school students and young attorneys. Instead of engaging on these crucial issues, they remain silent.

Senator Obama’s willingness to, say, cut taxes for 95% of Americans or invade Pakistan would have come across differently if we had 30 years of voting records in the Senate so that those claims could be measured against his actual votes on real tax-cut proposals or authorizations for real military action.

It may work out great in this particular case and, perhaps, Senator Obama will be a great President. We hope so. Yet, if young politicians start voting “present” and begin seeing their lack of experience and a record as a big advantage — will the nation really benefit?

Will it produce better leaders or simply less predictable ones?

Is that a win for the country?

Second, because so much of the campaign focused on this inchoate vision of hope and change, we are afraid that expectations have been raised that can’t and won’t be realized. There has been a video floating around the internet that a local NBC affiliate filmed at an Obama rally. In the video a young mother named Peggy Joseph took her children out of school to attend an Obama rally and her emotional connection with and enthusiasm for Senator Obama was astounding. Here is how she expressed her thoughts after hearing Senator Obama speak:

“It was the most memorable time of my life. It was a touching moment. Because I never thought this day would ever happen. I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know, if I help him, he’s gonna help me.”

You can watch the video below:

We are reminded of the campaign of Daniel O’Connell, who was known as the Liberator of Ireland. O’Connell delivered a famous speech calling for equal justice for Ireland, by which he meant that the Catholic population of Ireland — then a part of the United Kingdom — should be allowed full equality with the Protestant populations of Scotland and England in all matters.

In 1829, when he was running as an Emancipation candidate for parliament in a place called Clare, the election had concluded but the results had not reached the area. As Mr. O’Connell traveled in his carriage to Dublin where he would learn he had won in a landslide, the carriage came upon a road crew breaking rocks. When one of the workmen spied the great man, he became exceedingly excited and enthusiastic, perhaps a bit like Ms. Joseph in the video. It is said the laborer called out to Mr. O’Connell with enthusiasm: “Did you win, Mr. O’Connell, did you win?”

Mr. O’Connell is said to have replied: “I do not know. But you ought to temper your enthusiasm. Whether I win or lose, you will still be breaking stones next week.”

And so, alas, Ms. Joseph will almost surely still have to worry about paying her mortgage and buying her gas.

Which raises the question of what happens next.

The hope and perhaps one reason Senator Obama won is that with racism removed as a good explanation for her problems, Ms. Joseph and others like her will realize she is responsible for her life and that the way to not “worry about” various financial obligations is through thrift, education, hard work and not taking on responsibilities you can’t handle. If this is the consequence of his presidency, Barack Obama will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents America has ever known.

Of course, there are other possibilities and some may not be particularly good for America. The dream Ms. Joseph expresses of a worry-free life, in which others somehow take on one’s burdens, may be a dream with staying power. There is a play — the very first play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway — entitled A Raisin in the Sun. The name was taken from a line in a poem called Harlem, by Langston Hughes. The poem is a meditation on what can happen when the realization of a dream is frustrated:

By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

President Obama will need all our help and everyone would be wise to give it to him.

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