Here is my analysis of a few key factors that elected our new President. First just a few points. This was not a landslide, not even close. While Mr. Obama has in my view a clear mandate, he still has 46% plus who remain unsold. However, gathering 52% is a good sign for his administration. Secondly, statistically speaking he did NOT inspire people to vote more than in past elections. The percentage of the voters relevant to total population was statistically insignificant in 2008 than 2004 and 2000.
1) Ability to stay on message. This is called by Jim Collins “The Hedgehog Principle”. Hedgehogs in the business and political world have the ability to stay focused and on message. They know what they do well and they make that their selling point. The Obama campaign was highly disciplined. Other than the occassional gaffe that he made against certain radio show commentators, which hurt him in all probability, the campaign, also helped by media which did not press the stories, would not allow themselves to be taken off their message, which was simple. The message was, things are bad, we can bring about change. The changes sought were tied to the current dissatisfaction the country has with the Bush Administration, but was generally short on details. This was picked up by many as being vapid. However, give credit to the Obama Campaign handlers. They made a choice to keep him away from town hall venues and press interviews where he could be hurt. I believe his relatively poor performance at Saddleback showed their wisdom in this and solidified their resolve not to let events they couldn’t control, such as the economy alter their message of change. If anything they took the events handed to them and used the events to be an echo of a broad theme.
2) The financial debacle. One of the things that in contrast to Sen. McCain’s reaction of “I must do something” was that the Obama handlers used the event to broadcast their theme. This was in disregard to many of the inconvenient facts – the much of the problems of the banking mess were caused by policies created under President Carter and greatly expanded under President Clinton. The correlation picked up by some in the media – mostly print – of ties to Fannie and Freddie and high ranking Democrats never was picked up. Obama stayed out of the fray but framed the fray to buoy his premise that “change is needed”. It worked. While the crisis was not cooked by campaign, the decision to stay outside the mess initially showed him being detached, and that is not always a bad thing as it is more objective. Many polls showed that McCain was gaining traction and had a slight lead up to this point. This was caused in part by some slips by the Obama campaign, the momentum of the GOP Convention – which was effective, and the initial excitement of Sarah Palin into the foray.
3) Ability to appear credible. Sen. Obama’s largest hurdle was to keep the excitement of his base, youth and left to left of center Americans and expand his credibility to John and Mary Q. Public who are Center to Center Right. America was seen, and most identified themselves as “Conservative”. There is one bit of news that shows this to be true, at least socially. California’s repudiation by the voters of same sex marriage – in a year where the left and center left continued to show their appeal over right and center right candidates by a 15% point margin – indicates that even among “blue states” there is a cultural position of maintaining the status quo. Although he fared badly at Saddleback, and any objective reporting of the event along with the shift of pubilc sentiment alludes to that, the fact that Sen. Obama was visibly comfortable with the Evangelical community is important. There is a reason. Although politically many ” ‘Black’ Evangelicals” are left and left of center, culturally many of them are right of center – to include school reform (vouchers, NCLB) and most notably views on homosexuality This allowed those Evangelicals who are more Centrist and whose interpretation of their Christitanity leads them to value social activism and bread and butter issues highly – such as The Soujourners – to ally with Mr. Obama. Obama also showed a shift – and it was a major one – during the debates. Stating that “conditions on the ground” would dictate American policy in Iraq was startling and far more hawkish than anything he or any other Democrat had said during the primary season. This combined with his statements of expanding the war in Afghanistan and putting pressure on Pakistan took away the “wimp factor” in many. Mr. Obama’s shifting to the center from the hard left of the Democratic base is as old as politics. Run to your base in the primary, tack to the mainstream in general election. It will be interesting to see how he governs.
4. Weariness of the Bush Administration. This is the real reason why Sen. Obama won the election. I will not offer conjecture if Sen. Clinton would have fared better, but I think it would have been about the same. By all counts this was the nation speaking with their ballots of their dissatisfaction with Iraq policies and the numerous failures of the Bush Administration – and there are many to bring to light. The Bush Administration started losing this election with their victory in 2000. Fifty percent of the nation was not happy with that result. President Bush did enjoy many political and policy victories. NCLB will remain with the nation in some form for many years. Efforts to change the political and social framework in Africa will also remain. Also, it is likely that US policies in the Middle East will remain in some form and that the “War on Terror” will be funded with many of the policies once opposed by the Dem base suddenly accepted. The NYT reported about GITMO on Wednesday and it was amazing how suddenly GITMO was no longer the first level of Dante’s Hell.
However, the many debacles of the Bush Administration including the handling of the Iraq War after the initial objectives had been achieved, the perception and reality of the “out of touchness” that the President had whether it was by not listening to then NSA Rice message to “Get back to DC NOW” or the realities and perceptions of the sluggishness of federal response to Katrina. Throw in the perceptions of ABU and you get the picture. Most reasonable people understand that the POTUS does not have a big say in economic trends. They either benefit or take blame from the markets, but what Presidents can do is frame perspective. Whether or not the latter is Mr. Bush’s fault – although many have viewed him as a “lame duck” since ’06, the people’s loss of confidence in the outgoing administration was in many ways deserved. Sen. McCain had to fight against a skilled opponent and his own Party’s brand label. Even Sen. Obama wouldn’t have been able to overcome those factors.
Summary: All of this is prologue. The interesting part to watch will be to see how Mr. Obama governs as President Obama. If a President Obama is able to do as well as he did with the first three points in his administration it will likely enjoy success and populrity. However, he won’t have George Bush to kick around after the first few months. The onus will be on him and Congress to truly bring about policies that unite America.
I also believe he will shift back towards the left from the smaller moves he had made to the Center. In many ways he should if you believe as I do he had a mandate. The media and the Dems were correctly criticial of the Bush Administration – particularly from ’00 to 06 in not being inclusive. I have a feeling the same will happen, and in some ways that troubles me as I am more Centrist than either the Bush or forthcoming Administration will be.
While I don’t believe he will make the US a “Socialist” country, I would be shocked if policies that favor Big Government a la New Deal and Great Society are not reintroduced. There are other concerns that are shared. Mr. Obama’s declaration of a “Civilian Defense and Security Force” equal in footing and funding to the US military is as vague as it is troubling. I also think that this administration will be as partisan as President Bush’s was partisan, as President Clinton’s was partisan.
Some things won’t change. That is something you truly can believe in.