President Obama faces his severest test of leadership in the coming months. Will he be able to build some level of collaboration in Washington and continue to move the country toward much-needed reforms?
The election strengthened a drift to the extremes on both sides. Many moderate Democrats were defeated. Pushed by the Tea Party phenomenon, Republicans moved to the right. Six out of ten young voters favored Democrats while older Americans favored Republicans by the same margin, but they turned out in much larger numbers. A New York Times/ CBS pre-election poll showed that 63 percent of whites were disappointed with Obama’s presidency compared to ten percent of blacks. Latinos as a whole backed Democrats, but New Mexico elected a Republican as the nation’s first Latina governor. Republicans gained control of 19 state legislatures, giving a crucial edge in next year’s redistricting process.
The public did exercise restraint. Despite obsessive media coverage, several “celebrity” candidates like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware did not get elected. Big money did not always buy voter support. Christine McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, spent $40 million in an unsuccessful Senate bid in Connecticut.
The distressing job climate and anxiety over budget deficits drove a majority of independents who had voted for Obama in 2008 to switch allegiance. Reporting on interviews conducted during a 24-day drive across the country, Joe Klein of Time magazine describes a “prevailing sense of melancholy” about America’s future. The subject that provoked most passion was “the disgraceful behavior of the financial community and its debilitating effects on the American economy over the past thirty years.” Liberals and conservatives are furious at Washington’s failure to address the loss of America’s manufacturing sector.
While the electorate seems equally displeased with both parties, Republicans have been effective in delivering a message that resonates with – and sometimes manipulates – the fears and resentment of voters. In a supreme act of hypocrisy, moneyed interests on the right have successfully painted the first black president as an elitist. But Obama and Democrats as a whole will need to do a better job of connecting with the heartland of America. Burns Strider, a leading Democratic consultant and strategist in Mississippi, writes on the Huffington Post that “wonkish” policy speeches are no substitute for connecting with ordinary Americans, person to person, around shared goals and values. “There's a growing chorus of voices bemoaning the ongoing losses, by Democrats, of the support of working class Americans. Many drive pickups and hunt and fish. And, most hold fast to a belief in God. They also hold fast to a belief in the predominance and promise of America. Democrats, too often, simply fail to connect on personal levels with these important Americans.”
How will the Republicans leadership handle the Tea Party freshman in Congress? Will they continue to be prisoners of their own rhetoric, or will they engage in serious policy discussion? Will mainstream Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who, until election fever took hold, had taken constructive and sometimes courageous positions on immigration and climate change, be ready to work for sensible reform? Education, where Obama has not been afraid to challenge the teachers union, should be one area of common ground.
Will both sides be willing to have honest conversation about balancing the budget? David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, says Republicans have abandoned their principles and crippled the economy. He says neither Democrats nor Republicans are being honest about what it will take to reduce the ballooning deficit. It’s simply not honest to say that we can continue to enjoy the current entitlement programs and not be willing to pay for them.
Voters in the state of Washington rejected a ballot measure promoted by Bill Gates, Sr to impose an income tax on the wealthiest residents. But will we see more privileged Americans take a stand on the issue of equity? The top five percent now have a combined wealth of 40 trillion, more than all the wealth in human history prior to 1980.
In an interview with the New York Times, Warren Buffet noted that, with his vast income from dividends and capital gains, he pays far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries in his office. “How can this be fair?” he asks, “How can this be right?” The reporter noted that whenever someone tries to raise the issue, he or she is accused of fomenting class warfare. “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Will others join Buffet in truth-telling?
And what about the 200,000 people – most of them young – who traveled from every corner of the country to Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the Washington Mall? They believe in a more civil, inclusive, and fairer America. How ironic that a comedy show host should provide the most thoughtful, balanced commentary on the state of the nation: “We live now in hard times, not end times….The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder…. If we amplify everything we hear nothing.”
Despite the prevailing image of a country “torn by polarizing hate,” the truth is that Americans of all backgrounds and viewpoints work together every day to get things done, said Stewart. ”Most of us don’t live our lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives.”
I can vouch for Stewart’s assessment that average Americans are not the angry partisans portrayed by the media. My next-door neighbor is a staunch Republican who is well aware of my left-leaning political views. But we are the best of friends: we watch each other’s houses, he sometimes feeds our cat when we are away, and on Labor Day we organized a block party together.
Rob Corcoran is the national director of Initiatives of Change. His book, "Trustbuilding: an honest conversation on race, reconciliation, and responsibility", is published by University of Virginia Press.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.