Last night Barack Obama won an historic victory in the 2008 Presidential contest, defeating John McCain in a decisive fashion. Obama didn’t win by quite as large a margin as I predicted. I thought early voting would carry Georgia, and I was wrong about the Dakotas and Montana (and I knew that Arizona was a stretch). Still, Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina still haven’t been called and Obama leads in two of them, so I’m not too far off. It wasn’t as big a wave as I expected, but it was a wave, and the country showed that it wants a change in direction.
Now comes the hard part. How do we deal with the financial crisis, globalization, continuing terror threats and the on going “war” in Iraq? For all the joy some of us feel that the country has chosen a very different path forward, the reason for making this choice — real, intense and difficult problems facing the country — remains. The challenge the Obama Administration will face is great.
Moreover, this is not a challenge that can be met just by having new policies, or through governmental action. Our problems are deeper, and engrained in our very culture. We seriously need a new way of thinking if we are to deal with a very different world. The bad news is that changing how we think and shifting a culture is not easy, and is usually a generational process. The good news is that the Obama election is a sign that this shift is underway.
One thing Obama tapped in to during the campaign is the desire of Americans to be involved in their country and its politics. I have been amazed by the level of knowledge and action that young people have engaged in during this campaign, and that includes Republicans and McCain supporters. Obama has to take that and use it positively to create a sense that the solution to our problems first has to come from our own actions, not just waiting for government to provide a fix. There must be a shift from interest groups expecting government to do things to support them, to a cooperative effort where interest groups work together to solving their own and the nation’s problems. The idea isn’t new. George H.W. Bush called it “1000 points of light,” and Republicans have consistently called for more community action rather than government policy. Obama might be able to make that a reality.
Internationally the time of American fancying itself as the ‘guarantor of global stability,’ above the rules other states play by, is over. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US has learned humility, and recognized our limited capacity to shape world events. George W. Bush has already acknowledged this and altered foreign policy greatly from his first term. As President, Obama must build partnerships and chart a new identity for American foreign policy. The Cold War created the notion that the US was the “leader of the West,” and thus had both superpower privileges and superpower responsibilities. Unfortunately this became a rationalization to act too much the bully, and be too quick to reject international agreements or engage in military action.
George H.W. Bush tried with his notion of a “new world order” and emphasis on the UN approving military action in Iraq to counter aggression. But with Kosovo, Afghanistan and then Iraq again, there was a sense that the US still saw itself as able to do whatever it wants, without regard for international law or the concerns of other states. The problem is that the Cold War conception of American foreign policy is obsolete. Policy makers have been slow to grasp that their way of perceiving and acting in the world no longer could work. The illusion of economic vigor that the stock bubble followed by the property bubble gave made it possible for many to cling to the view that the US was a “unipolar power” or the “new Rome.” Now, reality has brought home undeniably and very starkly the fact that the world will be very different in the 21st Century. If we don’t adapt and change, we’ll fall farther and faster.
Later today or tomorrow I’ll write about what the election means in political terms — the GOP, the Democrats, and the balance of power. But over the coming weeks this blog is going to switch attention from the blatantly political to the complex linkage between culture, politics and economics, and how the US can renew its ideals and meet the challenges we face. The crisis is not just material, it’s also spiritual. As a society and a culture, we have to examine ourselves and where we are going. It’s a new era, yet undefined, and one we have the power to shape.