Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Now What?

At the end of the movie "The Candidate," after Robert Redford's character (Joe McKay? Mike McKay? Something like that) pulls off a huge upset and gets elected to the U.S. Senate from California, he turns to his handlers and asks, "Now what?"

We might well ask ourselves the same question right now. About President-elect Barack Obama, about the near-term fate of our economy and our country, and even, in my case, about my blog and the Sovern Nation website.

It's only taken me a week to get around to sharing my post-election thoughts. Election Night was a wee-hour blur of pizza slices and spreadsheet numbers and Twitter messages. The next two days were spent doing election postmortems, both on the radio and at a California Historical Society panel. I spent part of the Morning After in downtown Oakland, getting the reaction of older African Americans to the historic election of a black president. Then I knocked off our final parody song of the campaign, to the tune of "American Pie," with the as-usual off-key help of my newsroom buddies, Mark and Angela. And I've been really busy buying a house and planning my wedding - so no, I haven't had a chance for that post-election vacation just yet!

But now I do have a few moments to reflect on what we've all been through, and what it all means.

(Before I do that, though, a few quick housekeeping notes: The Election Night Live Blog was a great success, with 242 different people taking part in the online conversation. And I don't think more than five or six of them were related to me. Thanks to everyone who joined the fun! If you'd like to hear the audio recap of the general election campaign, a two-minute special sound piece I did that aired Election Morning, click here. You can hear the story about elderly African Americans reacting to the election here, and you can hear "Bye Bye to the Republican Guy" here - our biggest hit campaign song ever, with many complimentary emails and a couple dozen requests for copies).

So. Barack Obama beat John McCain. I know that I said he would, in my last blog, but that didn't reassure a lot of the anxious Democrats I know. They were, to put it mildly, freaking out. But this election just wasn't that close. I was way off on the Electoral College, but I did do pretty well on that popular vote prediction. I said Obama would win with 52.5% of the vote, and that McCain would get 46.5%, a six-point spread. The not-quite final numbers? Obama has 52.6%, and McCain has 46.1. That's as good as I've ever done at these things.

But I really didn't think Obama would roll up such a huge win in the Electoral College. I was sure the Republicans would pull out some of those too-close-to-call swing states, but instead they all went for Obama - except Missouri, which still isn't decided. McCain is winning the Show Me State by 5000 votes right now, but they still have thousands of absentee ballots to count.

Obama won North Carolina and Indiana by a single point each, Florida by two, Ohio by four. He carried Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Nevada in double-digit landslides. In most states, either the polls were right, or they understated Obama's support. There was no Bradley Effect. The racist vote was swamped by the turnout of young people and black voters, and by the huge gender gap American women gave the Democrats. In retrospect, probably any Democratic nominee could have beaten John McCain, given the tattered economy and all the built-in disadvantages for the GOP. If she had beaten Obama in the primary, Hillary Clinton would be president-elect right now. In many ways, the Democratic primary was like one of those conference championship games in football that people call "the REAL Super Bowl," matching two top teams for the right to play a lesser-regarded one from the other conference. McCain was the weak sister from the patsy conference, and the Democrats the elite powerhouse.

It's no mystery how Obama won. He ran a first-rate campaign, the most disciplined and best-organized I've ever seen, avoided serious missteps, and stayed positive, upbeat and hopeful. When the economy collapsed, and McCain thrashed about, Obama remained cool, calm and collected. He reaped the benefit of the enormous antipathy the electorate feels toward the Republican Party in general, and President Bush in particular. And when he got the lead, he sat on the ball and ran out the clock, to borrow another football metaphor.

And now we will have our first African American president.

That still feels like an extraordinary thing to say. After a few months, when he's screwed up a couple of things and the economy is still sputtering and our troops are still in Iraq, people may start to forget that Barack Obama is a Black President, and will treat him just like any other beleaguered chief executive, and that is as it should be (of course I hope nothing at all goes wrong, but let's be realistic here!). But right now, Obama's election feels so deep and visceral and earth-shaking. I went out the next morning and saw people running for the bus, and rushing to catch their trains, and I thought, what are these people doing? Don't they know how different everything is today? How can they go about their everyday lives when something so profound has taken place?

Of course, in our day-to-day lives, maybe it's not that profound. If you didn't have a job a week ago, you probably still don't. If you were going broke last week, Obama's election didn't magically replenish your bank account. The president doesn't really have that much impact on us individually; your mayor or governor probably affects you much more.

But then there was the young black man who told me he's going to go back to college, because if Obama can win the White House, he can certainly get those last few credits. There was the middle-aged black woman who is suddenly inspired to finally start her own business. There was the 60-something Oakland street vendor, originally from Louisiana, who said "I finally feel like I have a place in society, that all of us matter, not just white folk."

In my neighborhood, there are only two people who routinely fly American flags from their houses on the Fourth of July, or Flag Day. When I went out last Wednesday morning to walk the dog, a few hours after Barack Obama was elected president, I counted six American flags fluttering in the November breeze on my street alone. Brand new flags, flown proudly, saluting the country that wasn't too afraid to take such a bold and giant step. I can't possibly feel what an African American must feel right now, looking at the handsome black face that will represent America to the world. But I can think back on three centuries of oppression, slavery and racial hatred, and marvel at how far we've come. Yes, we have a long way to go, but as Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse in 1965, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

I can still remember asking my mother and stepfather in early 1968 whether Rev. King was going to be the next president. I had only known one, name of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but King was making as much news as any of the presidential candidates - McCarthy, Humphrey, Kennedy, Wallace - and a speech I'd seen him deliver on TV had given me goosebumps. I guess I was too young to understand that the White House was the exclusive province of white men. My eternally optimistic mom gave me a diplomatic answer, something along the lines of "I really don't think so, but you never know!" It was left to my much blunter stepfather to deliver the crushing blow: "What are you talking about? Quit your daydreaming. America will never elect a black president." A few weeks later, King was dead. We cried at school. There were riots in the streets. He was right, I thought.

It only took 40 more years, but I'm happy, for all our sake, to be able to say, finally, that he was wrong.

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