Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Obama rally on election night in Chicago. Credit: Flickr/WCHI News.
On Election Day, Americans gave Barack Obama a second shot at immortality. Four years earlier, the achievement was in the election itself, the election of an African American who described himself as a skinny guy with a funny name. This time around, the achievement is going to have to be in the achievements.
Election Day taught those who had not already grasped this essential lesson that we now live in Obamerica. Obamerica is multiracial, not just white. It has many religions and many secularists, not just Protestants. It has many different forms of living arrangements, not just the mom, the dad, 2.2 kids, the white picket fence and the suburban garage. It is multicultural, multiethnic, less monolithic, more diverse sociologically, ideologically, politically.
Had Barack Obama lost, his election could have been dismissed as an Obamanomaly, a fluke -- or, more accurately, a premature warning. But the new America that Obama represents and leads was best illustrated in the competing optics of the two political party conventions this summer. The Republican convention looked like a Midwestern church social, overwhelmingly white, square, traditional. The Democratic convention looked like an urban club scene, multiracial, hip, progressive. And the numbers on Election Day confirmed this -- Obama’s army of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, young Americans, well-educated Americans, and women triumphed over Romney’s white-bread coalition of the well-bred -- and their wannabes.
Just as the classic American political movie The Candidate ends with an unexpected electoral victory and the unnerving question “What do we do now?” Obama must figure out “What do we do now?” Part of the answer is watch and wait. There is this phenomenon called the business cycle. Had Obama been forcibly retired this week, the 7.9 percent unemployment rate would have defined him. Now, he has four years to watch the markets continue to recover, and Americans retool, revive, and return to prosperity.
But passivity is not an option in 2012; waiting is not enough. The first major challenge Obama must face is the Republicans’ enduring enmity. The man who promised to change Washington and heal the nation cannot continue to be proof that Washington is gridlocked and the nation hopelessly divided. It is not just this looming “fiscal cliff” of nearly $500 billion in automatic cuts and tax hikes to fight the deficit. Obama’s legacy will be shaped by his ability to live up to his 2008 vow to create a new kind of politics. Blaming Republican obstructionism for his failure is not good enough.
In addition to fording the gap with Republicans and not falling off the economic cliff, Obama has to worry about the unemployment pit, the health care fog and the Middle East morass. Too many Americans are unemployed and need to rejoin the work force. Obamacare still remains too complex, and too undefined -- now the Ppresident has a chance to oversee its implementation. And the messes in Iran and Syria, Libya -- and who knows where next -- still loom large.
Finally, Obama has to worry about the second term curse. Second term presidents quickly become lame ducks -- and have recently run into real trouble: Richard Nixon with the Watergate hearings, Ronald Reagan with Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton with the Lewinsky scandal, and George W. Bush with the great crash. Presidential power starts ebbing as inauguration day ends. Obama has to figure out how to show the people that he is in charge, that he has a vision, and that he can do the difficult, complex but critical job, Obamerica just rehired him to do.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As we end this searing presidential campaign, rather than offering an historian’s analysis or a pundit’s prediction, allow me to make a patriotic American’s plea. Growing up, we frequently heard the sexist sports cliché “may the best man win.” My plea to Democrats and Republicans, to Leftists and Rightists, to Blue Staters and Red Staters, to Americans -- is “let the winning candidate win,” meaning accept the American people’s verdict on Tuesday.
No matter what happens, tens of millions of people will be deeply disappointed; it has been that kind of campaign. The enmity, the bashing, all the talk of how different the candidates are and how polarized America is, combined with the fact that since the first debate each camp’s partisans could taste victory, will all but guarantee bad feelings if, as usually happens, one clear winner emerges on Election Day. Even before the campaign ended, murmurs started bubbling up, with some Democratic partisans ready to shout “voter intimidation” and some Republican partisans ready to shout “voter fraud.”
In truth, American politics is remarkably corruption-free these days. We have come a long way from “swilling the planters with bumbo” in eighteenth-century Virginia, the blatant manipulation of the “blocks of five, Dudley, scandal,” which custom-ordered votes in nineteenth-century Indiana, the crass “honest and dishonest graft” of Boss Tweed’s New York, Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago of “vote early and vote often” or Richard Nixon’s Washington of bugging, break-ins and cover-ups.
This year’s candidates are honorable, stable family men. Barack Obama has run a seemingly corruption-free White House while Mitt Romney has been accused, at worst, of taking advantage of bad unfair laws, not breaking them. In general, compared to nineteenth-century America, post-Sixties, post-Watergate, 24/7 media-scrutinized twenty-first-century America has better, cleaner government, even though faith in the government’s purity and efficacy is at record lows -- thanks to some of those very phenomenon that keep the government in check.
If recent history is the guide, the outcome on Election Day will reflect the people’s will not a cheater’s skill -- and the accusation “we wuz robbed” will most likely reflect partisan frustration rather than the actual situation
So, my fellow Americans, please accept the people’s verdict on Tuesday and acknowledge the winner’s legitimacy.
Losing partisans should be gracious in the tradition of George Washington, who acknowledged that rational people can reason their way to differing conclusions, and of Abraham Lincoln, who even promised to handle a rebellious South “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”
They should accept their fates in the tradition of Samuel Tilden, who in 1876 conceded his heartbreaking, unfair loss to Rutherford B. Hayes, to avoid risking another Civil War, and of Al Gore, who battled up to the Supreme Court in 2000, then helped his opponent transition smoothly into power.
They can try laughing off their agony as George McGovern did in 1972 when he said he had wanted to run for president in the worst way -- and did -- or as John McCain did in 2008 when he said that after the campaign he “slept like a baby,” waking up periodically -- and crying hysterically. One McGovern obituary reported last month, when asked when you finally get over losing a presidential campaign, McGovern said, “you never fully get over it” -- and he died at ninety.
Meanwhile, the winners should be magnanimous in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, who after the first transition from a ruling party to an opposition party in American history declared “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” and of U.S. Grant’s Native American aide Ely Parker, who, when greeted by the defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox with the words “I am glad to see one real American here,” grandly replied: “We are all Americans, sir."
America’s rituals of political warfare are precious to us all, from the stump speeches and debates, which can sometimes elevate, to the mudslinging and the recriminations, which frequently demean us all. But our reconciliation rituals are precious to us too -- with a healing process that usually begins with the losing nominee’s phone call to the winner and gracious concession speech, then culminates with bipartisan participation in the inauguration ceremony. And this year in particular, a quick end to the extended conflict is particularly necessary. Our leader will have a country to run -- and we all have a world to fix.