Magazine article Public Finance

Yes We Can, but How?

Magazine article Public Finance

Yes We Can, but How?

Article excerpt

Most of it has already been said - so let's just say that the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the US is indeed historic and of immense symbolism. It is clearly a turning point in US politics, with possible global consequences.

But the question is, as the president-elect rolls out a New Deal to save the sinking US economy - and puts the finishing touches to his transition team - what kind of turning point?

Elections can sometimes have a symbolic impact that bears little or even no relation to the actual facts. But Obama's election is factually important; he really did notch up a significant win on November 4. With 52% he was the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to win a majority of the popular vote. He made significant inroads into previously safe 'Red' (Republican) states.

However, John McCains 46% was also - given the unpopularity of the outgoing Bush administration - a reasonable achievement.

And McCain gave a gracious and democratic concession speech - signalling as strongly as Obama's victory that the US is a constitutional democracy, whatever some of its critics say.

Still, the election result is significant less for the actual vote than for its impact. As The Economist put it, while Obama managed to put together a winning electoral coalition it was 'impressive without being revolutionary'. Its true importance lies not so much in the actual votes as in the symbolism of the candidate. As one US commentator said just before the election, this was the US's 'Mandela moment'.

To gauge the extent of Obama's personal triumph, it is interesting to think of the circumstances that before 2007 most commentators would have envisaged for a black candidate to win.

You would have assumed that their party would have selected them in a fairly uncontested and decisive way - rather than having to fight the might of the Clinton machine, as Obama did.

You would have expected it to happen in circumstances of relative peace and prosperity, where electing a black president would not be seen as too 'risky' by too many white voters - not in the middle of two wars and a global financial crisis.

You would have expected the candidate to have had substantial executive experience, not to be a first-term senator with none.

True, Obama had the advantage of a pro-Democrat tide, an enormously unpopular Republican president and the tendency of voters to favour Democrats in an economic crisis. Even so, his triumph in both the primaries and the general election was something special. Team Obama's skill in both the air-war (media, new and old) and the ground-war (getting the voters registered and to the polls) certainly says something positive about his credentials to be a commander in chief.

So much for candidate Obama, what are the challenges facing President Obama? Most critical, of course, are the huge foreign policy issues and the global financial and economic crises - but these have been well discussed elsewhere. Domestic policy issues - especially the public finances, health and education - have received less attention.

But first, there is race. In the excitement of Obama's victory, some commentators have started talking about a 'post-racial' US. Would that this was so. It should also be remembered that white, working-class, less educated people - especially in the South - voted strongly for McCain, even more strongly than they voted for Bush, and that white people overall favoured McCain.

Whether the Ohama presidency proves to he as 'transformational' as former secretary of state Colin Powell has suggested remains to be seen. Obviously, the possibility is there. A barrier has been shattered the image of a black first family, dog and all, in the White House will now no longer be the preserve of Hollywood fantasy.

Whether this translates into (some) white people becoming more accepting of black leaders and less discriminatory at all levels of society, and of black people becoming more accepting of US institutions than they traditionally have been, also remains to be seen. …

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