A 21st Century President?

On Jan. 3, 2008, I arrived at the apartment of Paul Tewes, Barack Obama's Iowa state director, as the icy streets of downtown Des Moines filled with young Obamaniacs hugging and cheering, "We did it!" Upstairs, scruffy postcollegiate staffers squeezed between couches and credenzas to celebrate the senator's surprise victory in that night's Iowa caucuses. Cans of Bud Light covered every surface. Youth turnout, I was told, was up 135 percent from 2004, and the under-25 set alone gave Obama 17,000 votes--nearly his entire margin of victory. The next morning, a 25-year-old Obama supporter sent me an ecstatic email. "This," he wrote, "is our next president."

At the time, there was no way of knowing what would happen eleven months later. But I had my suspicions. It was clear to me that night in Iowa that Obama had begun to build the first 21st century campaign--a campaign with the potential, I imagined, to propel him to a 21st century victory in November. On Tuesday, we learned that both of these premonitions had, in fact, come to pass. The question now is whether Obama will fulfill his promise and pursue a 21st century presidency.

The litany of Obama's idiosyncrasies and innovations--as both campaigner and candidate--is nearly as long as it is familiar. For starters, he's black. (In case you missed it.) Less than 150 years ago, many Americans would've treated Obama as property. Now he's our president. That's progress--incredible, awe-inspiring progress. Similarly, Obama represents a new generation of American leadership--in both age and attitude. A mere 47, he urged voters from the start to reject the false dichotomies and "with-us-or-against-us" partisanship of baby-boomer politics--and defeated a Clinton and a Bush (at least symbolically) along the way.

Obama's innovations were technological as well. As you've probably heard, the Internet contributed to his stunning success. But he didn't just log on and let rip, like Howard Dean in 2004. Instead, Obama demonstrated how disciplined online activity can facilitate favorable offline outcomes. The Web enabled him to raise more than $630 million, which enabled to him forgo public financing, which enabled him to invest in an ambitious electoral map, which he then redrew mostly through the efforts of volunteers recruited and organized (you guessed it) online. A cratering economy and unpopular incumbent may have put the wind in Obama's sails. But these strategies were the sails themselves. 

Fittingly, the results last night reflected the modernity of Obama's campaign. The Illinois senator not only overcame John McCain in states that had bedeviled Democrats for years (Florida, Ohio) or decades (Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada). He did it by running up the score across a diverse spectrum of growing demographic groups--and, as a result, building a Democratic coalition that looks a lot like the future of America.

Moderates, for example, now outnumber both liberals and conservatives; Obama won them by 21 points. He captured first-time voters by nearly 40 points. Today, more Americans are graduating from college than ever before; Obama transformed Bush's six-point advantage among alums into an six-point advantage of his own. In 2004, John Kerry won Latinos--the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group--by nine points. Obama won them by 36--enough to flip Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. The Democrat also inspired similar shifts among under-30 voters (from nine points to 34 points) and African-Americans (from 77 points to 91 points). Even the nation's fastest growing region--the West--went from a tie in 2004 to a 17-point Obama rout. "It's been a long time coming," the president-elect said last night in Chicago, quoting Sam Cooke. "But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." Exhibit A? His voters. Thirty years ago, increasing the margins and turnout among blacks, Latinos, young people, college grads and Westerners wouldn't have made much of difference. This year, it made Obama president.

The question now is, "What's next?" Over the coming weeks, months and years, I'll be watching to see whether Obama pursues a truly 21st century presidency--that is, a presidency that prizes transparency, practices bipartisanship, privileges innovation over ideology, avoids the politics of demonization and calls on Americans to sacrifice for the greater good.

Over the last 21 months, the campaign has sent out mixed messages on this front. Early on, Obama refused to accept lobbyist donations and proposed numerous measures to increase government transparency--including a searchable online database of lobbying reports, congressional ethics records and campaign-finance filings. But Obama's secretive, corporate campaign obsessively controlled the media's access to friends, family and documents, often for no discernible reason, and declined (unlike McCain) to release the names of donors who contributed less than $200 to his cause.

In his speech last night, Obama revived a line first deployed at the 2004 Democratic Convention: "We have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States." But while he's crossed party lines on a few consensus issues in Senate--ethics reform, loose nukes, etc.--the president-elect has no real record of bipartisanship on thorny problems like immigration, campaign finance, global warming or earmarks (again, unlike McCain). On the stump, Obama floated above the fray, but he was perfectly content to unleash harsh ads under the MSM radar--including some thinly-veiled swipes at McCain's septuagenarian status. Despite making moderate noises on education and affirmative action, Obama has rarely voted against Democratic orthodoxy. At the debates, he was unwilling to ask Americans to give up anything greater than energy-inefficient light bulbs.

Am I saying that Obama should've run a different campaign? Hardly. In a presidential race, winning is the one and only goal--and Obama won big and brilliantly. But the fact is, political pressures--the incentives to conceal, or attack, or stubbornly adhere to Democratic doctrine--don't suddenly dissolve the moment the campaigning stops and the governing begins. In many ways, they grow stronger--especially in the midst of a crippling financial crisis. Last night, Obama asked us to believe that as president he would resist the same urges he periodically succumbed to on the trail. "This victory alone is not the change we seek," he said. "It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were." It'll be interesting to see how he plans to avoid backsliding. Maybe he'll mobilize online supporters to lobby for legislation, or appoint Republicans to his cabinet, or air health-care hearings live on C-SPAN. But to believe that politics ends on Nov. 5 is naive.

My suspicion is that Obama recognizes his 21st-century responsibility and will strive to govern accordingly--just as he recognized how to reach the voters of Iowa and, eventually, 52 percent of the electorate. Right now, all we have to go on is hope. But every improbable journey has to start somewhere.

Join the Discussion