For two days now, Americans have celebrated the idea that we may have finally atoned for our nation's original sin, slavery, along with its long legacy of racism. We can rejoice in the world's accolades over the election of a multicultural African-American to the presidency after nearly eight years of cringing in shame as the Bush administration methodically curdled our Constitutional values and sullied our global reputation as a beacon of hope. Every once in a while, it seems, we Americans do manage to live up to our ideals rather than betray them. Hooray!
I am just as happy as everyone else over all this global good feeling. But there's something else that I'm even happier about—positively giddy, in fact. And the effects of this change are likely to last a lot longer than the brief honeymoon Barack Obama will enjoy as a symbol of realized ideals. What Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back. Sense and pragmatism and the idea of considering-all-the-options are back. Studying one's enemies and thinking through strategic problems are back. Cultural understanding is back. Yahooism and jingoism and junk science about global warming and shabby legal reasoning about torture are out. The national culture of flag-pin shallowness that guided our foreign policy is gone with the wind. And for this reason as much as any, perhaps I can renew my pride in being an American.
I'm under no illusion that Barack Obama will turn out to be Barack Panacea. In terms of holding a major office, he's the least experienced president in memory. He'll probably screw up a lot of things, especially at first. The problems he faces–from the economic crisis to Iran's nuclear program–are just too hard. And I occasionally worry that in his eloquent eagerness to empathize and reach across cultural barriers, Obama may overreach in the opposite direction from Bush, stumbling into the appeasement of adversaries like Iran (whose buffoonish president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, practically invited him to do so this week by sending him the first letter of congratulations from Tehran, to a president-elect, since 1979). Obama must also guard against the sort of intellectual arrogance that characterized the "best and the brightest" of the Vietnam era.
But, frankly, these are all risks worth taking after nearly eight years of a president who could barely form a coherent sentence, much less a strategic thought. We can finally go back to respecting logic and reason and studiousness under a president who doesn't seem to care much about what is "left," "right" or ideologically pure. Or what he thinks God is saying to him. A guy who keeps religion in its proper place—in the pew. It's no accident that Obama is the first Northern Democrat to be elected president since John F. Kennedy. The Sun Belt politics represented by George W. Bush—the politics of ideological rigidity, religious zealotry and anti-intellectualism—"has for the moment played itself out," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.
From the very start of his campaign, Obama has given notice that whatever you might think about his policies, they will be well thought out and soberly considered, and that as president he will not be a slave to passion or impulse. While his GOP opponent, a 72-year-old who has battled skin cancer,, was cynically deciding for political reasons that a woman who apparently did not know that Africa is a continent rather than a country should be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Obama was setting up work groups to study every major international issue and region of the world. Through three debates with John McCain, he refused to be baited into personal attacks. And the more we have learned about his transition process, the clearer it becomes that he intends to be that kind of president as well. Against the very political concerns of some of his loyalists that he, the candidate of "change," is bringing too many ex-Clintonites on board, he is dispassionately welcoming-in the best brains (like Larry Summers, Laura Tyson and Gene Sperling) and most experienced hands (considering an extension of Bob Gates's tenure at the Pentagon, for instance). He is actively considering other Republicans for high posts.
How very presidential. And how very unusual.
One tragedy of the Bush administration is the amount of American brainpower and talent that went unused, the options that went unconsidered, because they were seen to lack ideological purity. That era is over as we confront a desperate landscape—a serious recession and two prolonged wars. While he hasn't yet invoked Franklin Roosevelt, Obama seems to be embracing FDR's pragmatic approach in 1933—knowing that what the country may need, economically and politically, is not so much an organized program but a hodgepodge of bold experiments like the New Deal. "It is common sense to take a method and try it," FDR said back then. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." Obama is judiciously hurrying to push through another stimulus package—and will probably shelve his raise-taxes-on-the-rich plan for the moment—while he is just as judiciously avoiding the Nov. 15 global economic summit Bush has scheduled for next week (because it will tie him too closely to Bush's failed policies). "I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face," Obama said in his acceptance speech in Chicago Tuesday night. If he holds to that pledge and nothing else, we'll be OK.
So anything seems possible now, even when it comes to the toughest issues. What might be the result if, say, Obama decided to put Richard Holbrooke (one of the toughest and smartest negotiators in the country) in charge of negotiating with the Taliban, and Bill Clinton in charge of hashing things out with the Palestinians—telling both of them to come back only when they've got a deal? Anything could happen. Maybe even something good.
Victors, it is said, write the history. Obama is now about to write America's new history. Unless I mistake my man, its theme will be that reason and sense and that cardinal American virtue—pragmatism—are going to rule once again. And that's really something to celebrate.