Obama: Making History but Not Ending It


Barack Obama won a mandate among younger voters so large that it literally defies comparison, and with it, we're told, a mandate to retire tired old fights of little concern to this new generation. Yet in the long run, it may well be that his victory has only put on hold some enduring political conflicts and may even ignite new ones.

Obama’s 34-point, 66-32 percent win among the group that made up about 20 percent of voters and 60 percent of new voters was nearly four times the margin of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Clinton in 1992.

This differential has been put down to the vast age gap between the first post-boomer candidate and his pre-boomer foe. A poll comparing support in an Obama-McCain race against a theoretical Clinton-McCain race in September, though, showed no gender gap in support for the respective Democrats, but a vast difference in the age of their supporters, with the Illinois senator faring 20 percentage points better than his New York counterpart among voters 35 and under, which was more or less cancelled out by Clinton’s 6-point lead among the larger pool of voters 35 and older.

It’s clear that Obama's victory represents, among other things, a generational transfer of power. What’s less clear is the oft-repeated claim that with it the culture wars of the 1960s have finally been "won," or at least that the two sides have agreed to a cease-fire.

Vietnam vets, pollster James Zogby points out, are oh-for-the-last-three elections, and vets overall oh-for-the-last five. Race has been put away, perhaps since Obama's post-Wright speech and certainly since his election. (That particular cease-fire, as it were, was immeasurably aided by McCain’s decision, not always honored by his campaign, to stay clear of former Obama spiritual guide Reverand Jeremiah Wright in particular and race more generally).

Gender? It turns out the Hillary supporters came around to Obama after all. When feminists blasted Sarah Palin for working despite having five children and conservatives insisted they'd never had an issue with unmarried teen pregnancies, it became clear that yesterday's core principles had been reduced to this election’s politically expedient positions.

The era-ending nature of Obama’s win has been vouched for by no less an authority of the old culture wars than William Ayers. Writing in These Times after the election, the Weatherman founder turned Hyde Park friend of the Chicago machine writes:

“The idea that the 2008 election may be the last time in American political life that the '60s plays any role whatsoever is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, let's get over the nostalgia and move on.

On the other, the lessons we might have learned from the black freedom movement and from the resistance against the Vietnam War have never been learned. To achieve this would require that we face history fully and honestly, something this nation has never done.”

Ayers is right that we haven’t faced history, in part because Americans are always so busy trying to bury it. We have opted to use Obama – who referred to himself in The Audacity of Hope as “A blank screen on which people of vastly differently political stripes project their own views” – as a proxy for history. With his election, the old politics are behind us.

Or not. As Mario Cuomo might say, it’s a poetic notion but it won’t survive four years of prose.

By the time the election was called for Obama at 11:00 Tuesday night, it was already clear that the old racial, ethnic, gender, class and regional antagonisms remain very much in play.

The heated and at times nasty name calling between blacks and gays (mostly aimed at the former by the latter) in the aftermath of Proposition 8’s passage in California even as those same voters gave Obama a 23-point, 2.6 millon vote win, represents one illustration. (Gays incidentally, preferred Clinton to Obama by more than 2-to-1 in the state’s primary, according to CNN exit polling). Arizona and Florida voters also passed referenda defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and Arkansas voters passed one prohibiting unmarried couples from adopting children or serving as foster parents.

It’s clear that the strong generational consensus of equal rights for gays isn’t a broader American consensus just yet.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s dismissal of the automakers’ appeals for federal monies (which spawned a predictable round of New York to Detroit: Drop Dead headlines) is another, representing both the clash of cities and regions for their share of the federal bailout funds, and the clash of wealthy Wall Street Democrats with what’s left of the old industrial union branch of the party.

So too will be coming tension between the party’s urban core and vulnerable new exurban House members, who may not easily accept the urbanist green agenda embraced by the party’s city-oriented congressional leadership, and which would pass tremendous upfront and long term costs to industries ranging from airlines and aerospace to truckers and energy producers. Whatever the potential environmental and economic benefits down the road, this tack will prove politically difficult to implement if the economy continues to struggle and oil prices continue to fall.

More generally, there’s the tension between the socially libertarian instincts of younger voters and their pro-big government tilt, especially but not exclusively on the environment, a dynamic that’s just now beginning to play out but augurs conflict to come.

Then there’s the continued dissatisfaction of those Hillary voters who gritted their teeth while pulling the lever for Obama. What if the Republicans find a more effective and proven female standard-bearer than Sarah Palin?

New black and Latino voters culturally closer to the religious right than to the wealthier liberals with whom they united in support of Obama have not had a chance to express those culturally conservative views. Perhaps a Bobby Jindal or some other non-white Republican figure could emerge to exploit these potential fissures once memories the anti-immigration fervor of the GOP primaries has faded.

It’s critical to recognize that all these conflicts – regional, geographic, ethnic and philosophical – were suppressed this year by the economy, which drove voters of all stripes running to the Democrats. When the economy improves, or becomes the problem of the Democrats as opposed to George Bush’s cross to bear, many issues now considered resolved won’t be.

Barack Obama may have made history but he did not end it. As we have seen over the past decades, the end of one set of conflicts often sets the stage for another. This is likely to be the case again.

Harry Siegel is a contributing editor at Politico. hsiegel@politico.com