Meacham: The Age of Obama

He was, once, the consummate outsider. The first time Barack Obama saw the White House was a quarter century ago, in 1984, when he was working as a community organizer based at the Harlem campus of the City College of New York. President Reagan was proposing reductions in student aid. The young Obama, just out of Columbia, got together with student leaders—"most of them black, Puerto Rican, or of Eastern European descent, almost all of them the first in their families to attend college"—to take petitions protesting the cuts to the New York delegation on Capitol Hill. Afterward, Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," the group wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument and then to the White House, where they stood outside the gates, looking in.

The glib literary move at this point would be to note how Obama, who will become the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, will now return to that house to undo the work that was unfolding inside all those years ago—the work of the Republican Party of Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush. But the story, like Obama himself, is more complicated than one might think. The Democratic Party's success in 2008 is not a straightforward revenge-of-the-left drama. Many true believers say this is the dawn of a new progressive era, a time of resurgent (and in many ways rethought) liberalism. The highly caffeinated have high hopes. At the same time, many conservatives—most, it seems, with a show on Fox News—see things the same way, and believe an Age of Obama will be a grim hour of redistribution at home and weakness abroad.

But if Obama governs as he ran—from the center—then there will be disappointed liberals and conservatives. The left may feel somehow cheated, and the right, eager to launch perpetual assaults on the new administration, could well find Obama as elusive and frustrating as the opposition found Reagan.

Parallels from the past risk seeming irrelevant and antique given the enormity of the historical moment. A nation whose Constitution enshrined slavery has elected an African-American president within living memory of days when blacks were denied fundamental human rights—including the right to vote. Hyperbole around elections comes easy and cheap, but this is a moment—a year—when even superlatives cannot capture the magnitude of the change that the country voted for last Tuesday. "If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama told an adoring yet serious throng in Chicago's Grant Park. He alluded to the historic nature of the victory only indirectly. "This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations," he said. He did not need, really, to add anything to that: that he was saying the words was testament enough.

Obama ran, in part, by arguing that his candidacy transcended race. Perhaps it did; many of us believed that his skin color, unusual name and unfamiliar background might well cost him the election. As it turned out, he won decisively, a rare feat for a Democratic presidential nominee. Does this mean that America is now beyond black and white? No, but we are much further ahead than we were a week ago. Obama's victory, no matter what one's politics, is a redemptive moment in the life of a nation for which race has been called, simply and starkly, "the American dilemma."

John McCain is a man of honor, a patriot who has lived a life of service and devotion to country. He was, however, on the wrong side of history in 2008. Like Hillary Clinton, also a formidable American and public servant, he had the great personal misfortune to be standing in the path of an unstoppable political force. (One of the riddles of the age will be what might have happened had he survived the South Carolina primary in 2000 and defeated Bush for the Republican nomination eight years ago.) External forces, chiefly the economic collapse in the autumn and President Bush's stubbornly low approval ratings, created an environment that made a GOP victory virtually impossible. With a man of Obama's undeniable political gifts on the other side, the task became actually impossible.

Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and Reagan in 1980, the Obama win of 2008 marks a real shift in real time. It is early yet, but it is not difficult to imagine that we will, for years to come, think of American politics in terms of Before Obama and After Obama. Certainly many of his voters already see the world this way. Exit polls suggest that one of every 10 voters was casting a ballot for the first time, and they were overwhelmingly minority or young. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds accounted for roughly the same percentage of the electorate—17 percent—as they did in 2004, but while the split four years ago was 54-40 percent for John Kerry, it was 68-30 percent for Obama, a net swing of 24 points in Obama's favor, which was by far the biggest shift in any age group.

Their battles are not the battles of their fathers and mothers. Why, Obama once asked someone he identified only as "an old Washington hand," did the capital of the first decade of the 21st century feel so much harsher than the postwar era? "It's generational," the man replied. "Back then, almost everybody with any power in Washington had served in World War II. We might've fought like cats and dogs on issues. A lot of us came from differ-ent backgrounds, different neighborhoods, different political philosophies. But with the war, we all had something in common. That shared experience developed a certain trust and respect. It helped to work through our differences and get things done." That version of the past was heavily edited: Joe McCarthy was a veteran, too.

Still, the point stands. Shared experiences tend to create shared values. Even the epic events of recent years—September 11, Iraq, the economic crisis—cannot begin to give the Obama coalition anything like World War II to smooth the rough edges of partisanship. His voters share convictions, not experiences. Chief among these convictions is a passion for a change from the rule of George W. Bush and an unabashed love for Barack Obama.

In this light, Obama has more in common with Reagan than appearances might suggest. Reagan's loyalists believed in his issues, or at least one of his issues, and they believed in him. They were anxious for a change from the incumbent administration at a time of shattered confidence and economic turmoil. The comparison is revealing, for it may foreshadow the nature of the next four or eight years. Like Reagan, Obama is an astute performer, a maker of myths and a teller of stories. Like Reagan, he is popularly seen, by friend and foe alike, as an ideological purist—but has demonstrated a tendency toward the pragmatic. Like Reagan, he is the leader of a core of believers so convinced he is on their side that they are likely to forgive him his compromises.

Obama gets the Gipper. "Reagan spoke to America's longing for order," he has written, "our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith."

A man with a vivid literary and historical imagination, Obama is something of a dreamer, if a down-to-earth one. As a senator, he saw things that are not there, but once were. "Sometimes, standing there in the chamber, I can imagine Paul Douglas or Hubert Humphrey at one of these desks, urging yet again the adoption of civil-rights legislation; or Joe McCarthy, a few desks over, thumbing through lists, preparing to name names; or LBJ prowling the aisles, grabbing lapels and gathering votes. Sometimes I will wander over to the desk where Daniel Webster once sat and imagine him rising before the packed gallery and his colleagues, his eyes blazing as he thunderously defends the Union against the forces of secession."

Visiting the White House when he arrived in Washington as a senator, Obama mused: "The inside of the White House doesn't have the luminous quality that you might expect from TV or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit drafty on cold winter nights. Still, as I stood in the foyer and let my eyes wander down the corridors, it was impossible to forget the history that had been made there—John and Bobby Kennedy huddling over the Cuban missile crisis; FDR making last-minute changes to a radio address; Lincoln alone, pacing the halls and shouldering the weight of a nation."

It is telling that his visions ended before the middle of the 1960s, a decade that has disproportionately shaped subsequent decades. Obama's campaign was about moving beyond the wars of the baby-boom generation. In this he is a contradictory figure. Pressing a centrist message in the presidential campaign, he had a reliably liberal and not terribly interesting voting record in the Senate. Which Obama will show up for work in the White House? The New New Democrat, or the safely liberal former community organizer from Chicago? It seems safe to say that he would not have won as he did if he had appeared to be an eloquent Walter Mondale, or a tactically brilliant Michael Dukakis. He ran as a more practical kind of center-left politician—not a Great Society liberal, but one who, in the tradition of Bill Clinton, believes in pursuing progressive goals through centrist means and with an occasionally conservative cultural message. The "socialist" attacks of the McCain-Palin ticket failed in part because they stretched credulity.

Liberals who have thrilled to Obama could grow disenchanted with him if he fails to deliver a progressive Valhalla by, say, Valentine's Day. But the Reagan example offers a different—and more likely—possibility. Given Obama's popularity with his base, he may be that rare politician who can get away with making a deal without being seen as selling out. Reagan raised taxes and nobody held it against him, or even noticed all that much. Obama could be a Teflon man for the new century.

One thing is certain: Obama knows the Washington game he disdains, and he knows it well. He confounded virtually every prognostication in the campaign, and he knows politics, psychology and history. He understands that patience is a rare American virtue, and that it is easy to lose one's perspective. "When Democrats rush up to me at events and insist that we live in the worst of political times, that a creeping fascism is closing its grip around our throats, I may mention the internment of Japanese Americans under FDR, the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, or a hundred years of lynching under several dozen administrations as having been possibly worse, and suggest that we all take a deep breath," he wrote.

There will not be much time for deep breathing between now and January. Before the crowd in Grant Park, Obama acknowledged the difficulties: "two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." In characteristically serious tones, he downplayed expectations, trying an all-too-novel approach in American politics: he was (basically) honest about what awaits us. "The road ahead will be long," he said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there." But he quickly came back to earth. "There will be setbacks and false starts," he said, promising that "I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face."

To govern well, Obama will need all those spirits he once evoked—FDR, Kennedy, Lincoln—and he will need an understanding public. Two years ago, on the eve of his campaign for president, Obama said this about the American people: "I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point."

Now he has the chance to help make such a politics a reality. On the night before the election, en route from Akron, Ohio, home to Chicago, Obama wandered back into the press section of his campaign plane, thanking reporters—especially those who had been with him from the beginning. "It will be fun to see how the story ends," said Obama, as he headed to the front of the plane. Yes, Mr. President-elect, it will.