Make no mistake; tonight was a big win for Barack Obama. The first African American president in American history. A post-boomer president who was in elementary school during the 1960s. He ran a careful, classy, disciplined, and extremely well funded campaign. His comfortable victory in the Electoral College is both an indicator of and a call for change. It does not, however, signal a mandate for a strong programmatic shift to the ideological left.
Based on exit polls and initial state-level results, Senator Obama did well pretty much across the board. No soccer moms or bubba voters seemed to be critical to his impressive margin. Of course, Obama did do especially well with blacks and Latinos and independents. He apparently won big among younger voters, but John Kerry also prevailed with that segment of the electorate four years ago. The difference this year was that a lot more younger voters actually turned out and voted. Compared to 2004, it is as if the entire electorate shifted toward the Democrats and away from the GOP.
The recession and financial collapse were key to the Democratic victory. Most Americans felt that the economy wasn’t going well and they disproportionately favored Obama. Although some of the pre-election polls predicted an eight to ten percent margin for Obama in the popular vote, he appears to have prevailed more narrowly by a national margin of three or four percent of voters. With the exception of Virginia, I really don’t see a transformation of the electoral map. And the states that put him over the top were places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which are far from liberal bastions.
Similar assertions can be made about the congressional results, I think. The GOP losses in the House and Senate apparently were substantial, but not huge. They were less than many Republicans feared and Democrats sought. Some of the Senate races are still in play, but I don’t see a filibuster proof majority emerging in that chamber or really massive GOP losses in the House.
In other words, although large differences remain between professional politicians in Washington, with Democratic office holders clustered to the left and Republican office holders clustered toward the conservative end of the ideological continuum, most Americans remain pretty moderate in their views about the major issues of the day. Most of us are not cultural warriors. For the most part, we’re political pragmatists deeply concerned about the state of our country and its role in the world.
If Barack Obama truly wants to lead the entire nation, he should refuse to play to an activist base of Democratic liberals and instead govern from the ideological middle. To do so, he will need to hold the line against the energized committee chairs of his party in the House and Senate. A pragmatic, centrist president of the United States? After a decade of corrosive ideological polarization in Washington, that truly would be a change.