Obama’s historic win, and his historic quagmire

For the first time in the nation’s history, an African-American will serve as president. For the first time since 1964, a Democrat has won more than 51 percent of the vote. But while Barack Obama remade the American electorate to sweep himself into the White House, the Illinois senator still has work to do to bring his party along with him to a lasting majority.

Obama’s win, with 52 percent of the vote and a near-landslide of 349 electoral votes, fundamentally altered the political map. The Democrat won each of the states John Kerry won in 2004, as well as at least eight states President Bush won that year.

Those extra wins came not only in perpetual battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida, nor in emerging Democratic territory like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, but also in historically deep red states like Virginia and Indiana. At press time, another historically red state, North Carolina, remains too close to call.

Obama achieved the big wins by increasing turnout among those between the ages of 18-29, among whom he outperformed John Kerry by eleven points. Instead of losing voters who made more than $50,000 a year, Obama tied McCain among those voters, while winning a 60 percent majority among those not making that much. He won majorities in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West, according to exit polls, losing the South by a surprisingly narrow 53%-46% margin.

Obama won those who thought the economy was the most important issue; who thought the war in Iraq was the most important issue; and who thought health care policy was the most important issue facing the nation.

But perhaps most importantly, Obama won two-thirds of voters who said they disapproved of the job President Bush is doing. That amounted to 71 percent of the electorate, and though McCain won a higher percentage of voters who thought Bush is doing a good job, when only 27 percent of Americans feel the same way, it proved an inadequate amount to overcome the president’s deep and abiding unpopularity.

With him, Obama swept at least five Senate seats and nearly two dozen House seats into the Democratic column. Democrats might assume that their victories, in states as diverse as New York, Alabama and Arizona, amounts to a sweeping mandate that validates their agenda.

That could be a politically dangerous assumption. For as much as the election was about Obama’s call for a new direction, it was also a repudiation of Bush’s unpopularity. And had Democrats truly received a mandate, close Senate races in Oregon and Minnesota against Republican incumbents who have distanced themselves from the Bush Administration as much as possible would not be so tight.

Democrats spent much of the cycle arguing for change and, therefore, against the Bush Administration. It worked, and beautifully, but the party left seats on the table. And now, with sizable majorities in both houses, the party will nonetheless be forced to include a number of Republican moderates, at least in the Senate, in their policy deliberations.

That prospect could be easy in Obama’s early honeymoon phase. As the first Democrat to secure a majority of the country’s votes since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Obama can legitimately claim his agenda deserves a hearing. But after the initial elation wears off, particularly as the new administration finds its footing in the White House, that task will become more difficult, and Republican moderates will move his agenda to the right.

In addition, Democrats not only may consider a mandate, they must also deliver. If the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress are stymied, however dramatically or however briefly, it will take a political toll and embolden the GOP. In his speech last night to hundreds of thousands of supporters in Chicago, Obama warned that progress may not come in the first year, or even in the first term, but that it will come. He may not have the luxury of a patient electorate, and the new Democratic majority could be hamstrung by gridlock and punished at the polls in 2010.

Obama’s win last night was truly a defining moment in American history. Those who watched so intensely as the campaign found every twist and turn imaginable will remember where they were when Obama reached the West Coast crescendo that tipped him over the 270 electoral votes necessary for a win. Those who wondered about a hidden racism in America, reflected in an impending Bradley Effect or the feared that Hispanic voters wouldn’t back a black candidate, can appreciate that the country has, however briefly, stepped beyond its imperfect past.

However, there are perils that already face Obama’s first term. He must deal with a global economy in crisis, likely caused by the same experts who helped create an earlier boom. He must handle two simultaneous foreign conflicts, one of which may be teetering on the brink of a perilous stabilization, while the other spirals out of control. He must coax America’s allies to her side and simultaneously neutralize, in a peaceful manner, her many enemies. Those would be a challenge for three presidents, much less one.

Obama created a new electoral map. For his party to maintain that possibility in the future, and to build a true governing coalition, Obama and Congressional Democrats now must deliver. From the man who achieved the seemingly impossible, what may turn out to be the truly impossible is now expected.

Obama’s historic win, and his historic quagmire