Can Obama Keep the Grassroots Excitement Alive?

The morning-after emphasis on race in the wake of Barack Obama's resounding victory is appropriate, given our history as a country. It was not that long ago when dogs were unleashed and firehoses turned on black people for wanting to integrate public facilities or attend college. But Obama's election has significance way beyond race. The way he raised money and mobilized voters represents a taking back of the country, a grassroots movement, even an uprising, that will have echoes far into the future.

Criticized for abandoning the public finance system, he upheld the spirit of reform by breaking the grip of the big donors and special interests. Millions of people contributed to the Obama campaign with the average contribution under $100, a new netroots populism that can sustain him as president during the tough times ahead. His immediate challenge will be figuring out how to keep together and activated this new citizens' army that he created. It will take all his oratorical skills to keep enthusiasm high once he starts making decisions that have no immediate payoffs, and there are no more election-night highs.

Watching him on the stage in Grant Park accepting the acclamation of the voters, he was his same steady self—if anything, more sober-minded. He wasn't flying high with the taste of victory, and his words were pitched as much to those who didn't support him. He didn't mention Martin Luther King, Jr. by name, but his speech borrowed from King in its cadences and aspirations in the same way that President Bush in his speeches drops references to biblical passages that only those in the know would pick up on. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there," Obama said as the crowd chanted "Yes we can!"

King's final speech before he was assassinated envisioned the Promised Land. "I may not get there with you," he declared in words that would later seem prescient. "But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

When an aide mused aloud in the week before the election why anyone would want the job of president given all the problems, Obama replied that it's the best time to be president because in the midst of crisis it's easier to break down bureaucratic barriers and actually do something. It was a typically analytical response, but he wouldn't be human if he didn't have some qualms about the burdens about to be placed on his slim shoulders. NBC's Tom Brokaw jokingly remarked that once it was clear who had won, Obama had asked for a recount. Indeed, Obama himself had said earlier in the campaign that the possibility of losing didn't wake him up at night; it was the thought of winning.

Obama strategist David Axelrod recalled standing in the green room with Obama minutes before he would go onstage for the debate with John McCain. The days before the high-stakes encounter had been chaotic with the financial crisis breaking around them and McCain declaring he was suspending his campaign and might not attend the debate in order to return to Washington and help craft the bailout package. A day of debate prep was lost in the frantic back and forth with Treasury officials. Axelrod found the tension in the green room "suffocating." He turned to Obama and asked, "Are you nervous?" "Yes, but it's a good kind of nervous," Obama said. "Just give me the ball."

Now he's got the ball, and he'll be judged by his performance. His first appointment, the hard-hitting and abrasive Rahm Emanuel, signals both toughness and conviction. Emanuel is firmly entrenched in moderate, DLC politics, co-authoring a book with Bruce Reed, the keeper of the centrist flame at the Democratic Leadership Council. Republicans will try to demonize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as the far left version of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, but both will resist playing to type. Pelosi has a bigger and more conservative majority and Reid, a pro-life Mormon, is up for re-election in 2010. How far left can they go—especially with no money?

Obama joins the pantheon of FDR and LBJ as the third biggest vote getter on the Democratic side in terms of the percentage of votes cast. Franklin Roosevelt took office during the depths of the Great Depression; Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. At the beginning of his improbable journey, Obama counted himself among those who wondered whether someone named Barack Hussein Obama could be elected president. "Obama resurrects American Dream," declared the headline of a German newspaper. Obama has changed how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves. He has a big job ahead—but he's got a bigger head start than most presidents get.