Campaigns divide, and this one has been no exception. But if campaigns present choices, elections are the occasion for reunification. On Tuesday night, the struggle ended with a convincing victory that altered the contours of the electoral map and movingly reminded us of the greatness in our history.
With victories in Democratic strongholds and historic Republican redoubts -- Virginia, of all places -- Barack Obama can rightfully assert a national mandate, one he will need to confront the difficulties ahead. As our president, he must re-energize a troubled nation, reviled in much of the world, unsteady and anxious at home. The range of issues that demand the next administration’s attention is almost limitless; the yearning of the country for thoughtful, conscientious leadership is nearly palpable.
Before the election gives way to the complexity of governing, however, we deserve to savor this moment. The same nation that within many of our lifetimes sanctioned Jim Crow has elected a black man to the presidency of the United States -- this, just 61 years after Jackie Robinson lifted a bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 54 years after Brown vs. Board of Education integrated the nation’s schools, 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the country’s conscience from Washington’s National Mall. Our history of racism is real and painful, and it is far from resolved. But our progress is equally undeniable. It stood before us Tuesday night. The satisfaction of Obama’s victory resonates around the world, stirring emotions in Europe and Africa, in rich nations and poor, just as it stirs our national soul.
Obama will serve as president not of a race or a region but of a nation. He has demonstrated admirable gifts for leadership in his young life and in this long campaign. And as he assumes the office that the electorate has granted him, he has the opportunity to be the leader that our current president, too often, has not been. He must surmount the partisanship of the campaign, bridging the divides of party, as George W. Bush pledged to do but did not. He must repair the United States’ international relations and renew our ties to the multilateral organizations that President Bush neglected. He must repair the damage inflicted by the so-called war on terror, which has alienated the United States from many friends. Closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be a welcome and symbolic start.
Obama faces an economy in tatters. The downturn caused by the collapse of the housing market will force him to grapple with increasing unemployment, mounting foreclosures and some high-profile bankruptcies, possibly including a major U.S. automaker. The temptation will be strong to open the federal budget tap and pour cash into the economy. But there are lessons of history to be heeded in this moment of crisis. There’s little or no benefit to be gained from giving money to taxpayers and companies that aren’t ready to spend it. Keeping weak companies in business to minimize the pain of more job losses would only delay the inevitable restructuring and prolong the economic malaise. And the more often the government intervenes directly in an industry, the more it usurps the market’s role in picking winners and losers.
On the environment and energy, it is imperative for Obama to lead a radical shift in policy. Global warming has for too long been a partisan issue, with Al Gore and other Democrats leading the charge to combat it while Republicans, including Bush, have scoffed at scientific findings and promoted fossil-fuel consumption. There’s nothing political about the climate: It’s getting warmer, and the overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion has concluded that humans are the cause.
There is good reason to think that conservatives, who have resisted environmental initiatives because of their economic cost, are prepared to join this conversation. John McCain is in favor of carbon caps, and prominent figures in the evangelical Christian movement have begun calling for better stewardship of the Earth. What’s more, it’s increasingly clear that ignoring climate change would be more costly to the global economy than fighting it, a point that should hit home with fiscal conservatives. Our new president needs to impose a price on greenhouse-gas emissions, encourage renewable power and improve energy efficiency and automotive fuel economy.
The campaign largely avoided the issue of immigration, a topic that so inflames certain constituencies and so scrambles party distinctions that neither McCain nor Obama chose to discuss it much. Now that election day is behind us, Washington should again take up this issue. Liberals must acknowledge that our national security depends on stable borders; conservatives must concede that neither common sense nor basic decency allows us to cast out millions who came here illegally but now work and raise families and contribute to our national well-being. Bush wisely championed comprehensive immigration reform, but he could not win Congress’ support. The new president and new Congress must complete that work.
Compounding those and other challenges is the central paradox of the office Bush has bequeathed his successor: Obama will assume a presidency made vastly more powerful by Bush, and he must cede that new authority to restore legitimacy to the position. Where the Bush administration used signing statements to make law and circumvent it at the same time, Obama must not. Where Bush authorized surveillance of Americans without warrants, Obama must not. Where Bush condoned the use of torture and the detention of suspected terrorists without trial or recourse to the courts, Obama must not. With his imperial presidency, Bush diminished Congress and the courts; it is time for a restoration of balance to our governing institutions.
Humility and modesty are guiding principles that befit a great power and a great leader. Bush has paid lip service to those ideals; Obama must honor them in fact, not merely in word.
For nearly two years, Americans have participated in a thrilling -- and sometimes contemptuous -- debate about which candidate and which ideas should guide this country through a dangerous, difficult present toward a more promising future. On Tuesday, we chose the president to lead that journey. Today, we embark, united again.