Yes, he can!

Godfrey Hodgson
6 November 2008

"Yes we can!"

With that rhythmically repeated trope, three of the simplest Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, Barack Hussein Obama greeted his victory in the United States presidential election. In the same breath he dedicated it to a future that can fulfil the audacity of his hope, and the dreams from his father, his mother and the grandmother who sadly died on the eve of his triumph.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969).

Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin,2000)

More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006)

A Great and Godly A
The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on America's extraordinary election:

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"America's change election: reality or mirage?" (11 February 2008)

"'Superdelegates' and the US election" (25 February 2008)

"The lost election year" (15 May 2008)

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)"

A game of two halves
" (15 July 2008)"

Barack Obama's political tour
" (28 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies"(18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"Metapolitics: America's election faultline" (18 September 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

For more than eight years, those of us who were disappointed and even disgusted by way that the reckless cynicism and spiteful nationalism of American conservatives betrayed our hopes for America have ended conversations, articles, books with variants on one theme. In the long run, we knew, the decency and good sense of the American people would reassert itself. We asked how long it would take. But we knew they could. And now they have - and can.

The Obama administration, as so many pundits have already said, will not have an easy road. Many of these are well-rewarded voices whose failures of of judgment (that the Democratic party was finished, that America had a permanent conservative majority, that Obama could not be elected) are now exposed. But in this one particular, they are right.

The challenge

The road will indeed be hard, not least because of the equivalent of improvised explosive devices with which the carriageway has been littered by conservative incompetence and ideological arrogance. The economy has been ruined by mortgage-sellers who hawked poor-people's hopes as a "product", and by smoother metropolitan salesmen sneaking out toxic loans disguised as sophisticated derivatives. Both teams of culprits, it should not be forgotten, were overwhelmingly Republican voters and funders. America's reputation has been seriously damaged by officials who took the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as a licence to panic, to lie, to kidnap, to torture and to jeer at the ancient and modern guarantees of civilisation: habeas corpus, Geneva conventions, alliances, United Nations, common decency.

Even the hard power of the country that was obsessively described as the "lone superpower" - victor in a contest no one else was engaged in - has been seriously damaged. America's public debt is one-third owned by foreigners who have no special reason to do America any favours. Trillions of dollars have been poured into equipping the military with weapons for wars that could never be fought; while the armed services do not have the manpower, the weaponry or the money to prevail in the wars they do have to fight.

The urgent need to arrest environmental damage before it is too late has been excused by one exceptionalist illusion after another. "We don't have to worry because of our biofuels. We don't have to worry because the higher the price of energy, the more we can avoid self-denial by offshore drilling in increasingly marginal waters or with Athabasca tar sands".

So, yes, it will be a long and a hard road.

President Obama will have a strong Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, but for that very reason he will meet division in his own party.

He will face an acute dilemma in dealing with the economic disaster. If he allows the bankers to take the government's money and walk off with it in unconscionable bonuses for failure, he risks losing the political confidence of frightened millions among the voters he has recruited. If he is too tough with Wall Street, he risks damaging business confidence at home and abroad.

He will have to act swiftly. Lyndon B Johnson, the last Democrat to win on as big a scale, said "you only have one year". Yet he must avoid the temptation to go for quick fixes He must have the courage to risk structural change: in healthcare, in education, in replacing infrastructure, in shoring up the social-security pension, the greatest achievement of the last new deal. There will be many other dangers to be sidestepped, including those called by Donald Rumsfeld, the wisest fool in Christendom, the "unknown unknowns".

The leader

He does however have considerable and even unmatched political resources.

He has, first of all, his own political talent, reinforced by the aura of victory, the "mandate of heaven", and the influx of talent to his campaign. He is more than an inspired orator, though he is certainly that - perhaps the most gifted since Martin Luther King. He has self-control. He understands timing. He can inspire those around him and offer hope to whole blocks of voters.

The very severity of the economic crisis may make it easier to slay some familiar demons. He can now, for example, stop talking about the war on terror, close the prison-camp at Guantánamo, move decisively on national health-insurance, help struggling homeowners and compel the banks to behave responsibly.

He has a chance to reconnect the presidency with the political nation, restoring the connecting-rods that have rusted away since they were so effectively used by Franklin D Roosevelt: the party, the government bureaucracy, the ness media and the Congress. To those atrophied limbs he can add new growths: the power of the internet not only to raise formidable sums of money without putting himself in debt to lobbies and special interests, but also to interact with the people in the way that the old party machines had long neglected.

Above all, he has created (in part thanks to the stupidity of the conservatives) a new national coalition to support him. With the exception of the deep south and Texas, this is a national coalition. Barack Obama has won Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado, as well as New York and California. But he has also won the support of retired people and young people, white people, black people, Hispanics, WASPs and Catholic and Jews and Muslims. Only among the over-65s as he failed to break through. Like Roosevelt and John F Kennedy before him, he appeals to intellectuals and professionals, and to women in all these categories.

Not all Americans share his vision. There was no "Bradley effect", the name for residually prejudiced white voters who told pollsters they would support a liberal candidate only to vote the other way in the privacy of the polling-booth. But the Republicans did use a good deal of veiled racism in the campaign, even if John McCain personally (as opposed to the old pros he had inherited from the Bush machine) fought in the main honourably. There is residual racism in America, as elsewhere. But a society that has come to admire Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice is not scared by Barack Obama.

The conversation

Every American presidential election has two functions. One can be called political, the other meta-political. The voters decide who will enjoy the power and emoluments of literally thousands of elected "officials" (the word is used differently in America from Europe). These go all the way up the country's administrative apparatus - from dog-catchers through the members of school boards and regulatory bodies; some judgeships; municipal, state and federal legislatures; some state governorships (others are chosen in "off-years"); the federal House of Representatives and one-third of the members of the Senate; and at the apex of this immense structure, the vice-president and president of the United States.

The other function is an equally vast but looser process of self-examination and self-criticism. This involves not only the politicians and the voters, but also a self-appointed commentariat. The election year is the opportunity for the American people to argue about what has happened, where they are, and where they want to go.

Also in openDemocracy on the United States election:

has published daily commentary and analysis of the 2008 election - both from the United States itself and around the world - and links to the best campaign coverage

The current highlights include an email exchange between KA Dilday and Anthony Barnett on the meaning of Barack Obama's candidacy


Sidney Blumenthal, "The strange death of Republican America" (4 November 2008)

Once upon a time this discussion was led by editorial writers. Then, because most of the 15,000 newspapers could not afford specialist commentators, and most editors were too busy getting the paper out to offer political reflections, a tribe arose of national syndicated columnists. Later, television pundits joined the fray. Now thousands of bloggers, running the gamut from the sagacious to the hysterical, have pitched in. The election becomes the occasion for something not far short of national self-psychoanalysis.

Once, the commentariat was overwhelmingly liberal. But conservatives and especially neo-conservatives have made a special effort to supply their arguments and their people, generously funded through conservative foundations.

In this diversifying media landscape, the new president will have the opportunity to build on his super-efficient and coordinated campaign that used all the tools of new media. The presidency and the American political conversation are set to combine in fascinating and perhaps surprising new ways.

The contest

The great issue of the campaign for me from the start was not whether the United States could elect an African-American president, dramatic as that was always going to be as a sign of how far the United States has changed and is changing in racial matters. I am, after all, old enough to remember signs on park-benches in the nation's capital forbidding persons with African blood from sitting on them. In my working lifetime sexual "miscegenation" was a felony in many northern and all southern states. (These were, it used to be said, the most frequently broken laws in all human history.)

The even greater issue in 2008 was whether this was to be what the political scientists call a "critical election" bringing about what is called a "realignment" of politics.

That means something more than even the most decisive a decisive win for a particular candidate for the presidency. It means a shaking of the political kaleidoscope, as has happened at fairly regular intervals: in 1912, 1932, 1968. In those years, and (so the learned argue) in some 19th-century elections as well, blocs of voters and interest groups abandoned one of the two historic parties and came together in different predominating alliances.

Such political cataclysms do not happen by spontaneous generation. They are forged by the hammer-blow of events in the heat of national perception of those events: the great depression (1932); the unrest of the progressive era (1912); and the triple impact of the civil-rights revolution urban rioting and the Vietnam war (1968).

For months during the primary campaigns and the early stages of the general election, I feared that a desirable and necessary realignment was not going to happen. The media focused obsessively on how much money the candidates had to spend. Often reports counted dollars without even mentioning policies. The conflict between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama split the Democratic Party and came close to losing the election.

The McCain campaign, once reinforced by veterans of the Karl Rove era and the "Swift Boat" barrage that sank John Kerry's campaign, lowered the tone and launched its own firestorm of unreconstructed political insinuation. After his choice of Sarah Palin as his running-mate, McCain even pulled ahead in the polls.

Then, in mid-September, Lehman Brothers, a true Wall Street thoroughbred, went bankrupt. The government thought it would be clever to let it go, to avoid what was called "moral hazard". That meant the danger that bankers might behave recklessly because they thought they could count on the government to bail them out. (The moral hazard of tempting people with unheard of salaries and bonuses to take reckless risks with other people's money did not trouble the "masters of the universe".)

Suddenly, people woke up to the fact that the presidential election was serious business, not gossip or farce. Suddenly, issues of policy were not just for wonks. The underlying issue, buried under a mountain of garbage (what did McCain call his wife? Was Obama a secret Muslim? Was Governor Palin's daughter pregnant? Was Michelle Obama sufficiently proud of her country?) surfaced again.

The question before the electorate now was: do we want an end to the conservative ascendancy?

The answer given by the American people on 4 November 2008 was: yes, we do.

The change

It's true that many Americans, like many people anywhere, are and will remain "social conservatives". Many will continue to believe that abortion is wrong under almost all circumstances. Many hate the idea of anyone telling them they cannot own a gun. Many (perhaps more than elsewhere) are suspicious of government - though they certainly have more government than most other democracies. Many (certainly more than elsewhere) are prepared to pay unimaginable amounts for cold-war hardware. Most, indeed almost all, don't like to hear foreigners criticise their country.

That will not change. Senator Obama does not have much of a problem with that He is himself, as a matter of fact, a man with many conservative instincts. His Christian faith is important to him. His family is at the centre of his world. He is, in his own way, an America exceptionalist. His ideas on foreign policy, while a welcome change from the Prussian posturing of the Bush administration, are not outside the mainstream of traditional policy. And his domestic strategy does not seem to be anywhere near as radical as the Republicans have tried to claim.

What he stands for, he repeats on every occasion, is change.

It is right that we should all try to find out precisely what he means by that word. It is with words, not bayonets, that men are ruled.

I believe that what he means by change is the reduction of inequality, of injustice, of arrogance. In short, he means to end conservative ascendancy. That is what a decisive majority of the American people have said they want. Given the historic dimensions of his victory, can he achieve that? Yes, he can.


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