The beltway poison began almost before the dancing stopped early Wednesday morning. Obama has to be "cautious." This is still a "center-right nation," wrote Bill Kristol. "The country remains very evenly divided," says Clinton advisor Harold Ickes. Obama better lower his sights, ignore the "liberal" Congress and liberal lobbies, and govern from the center.
The best response to that came from the Obama camp itself. Newly appointed Chief of Staff Rham Emanuel told Face the Nation: "Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things. John Podesta, co-chair of the transition team, reported about Obama: "He feels like he has a real mandate for change. We need to get off the course that the Bush administration has set."
Exactly right. Obama won a majority of the vote–the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to accomplish that–after a campaign that was focused on a debate about direction. Americans were given a choice between what Obama called the "failed philosophy" of the Reagan era, advocated by Bush and McCain (top-end tax cuts, corporate trade deals, trickle down economics, deregulation) and the "redistributionist socialism" that McCain accused Obama of (progressive tax reform, public investment in new energy, affordable health care for all, etc). Americans made their choice clear.
And they want that choice respected. In an election eve poll done by the Campaign for America's Future with Democracy Corps, voters were asked if they wanted Republicans to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and help pass his program, or if they should oppose the program since it was headed in the wrong direction. By a stunning 75 to 21, three to one, they wanted Republicans to cooperate.
That election day mandate is reinforced by the mandate imposed by reality. This economy is in trouble and it is getting worse. We've just seen the worst eight-year employment record in sixty years–and that was before the recession gets bad. Wages haven't recovered to where they were in 2000. More go without health care. Poverty is rising.
Voters want action; the economy needs bold action. Emanuel encouraged the Congress to pass a down payment on a recovery program next week in special session, and promised broader action in January, on the economy, on energy, on health care and a middle class tax cut. Make no small plans.
If Obama pursues this bold agenda, he will have no problem sustaining the core of the coalition that propelled him into office–working women, Blacks, Latinos, union workers, and the young.
There is lots of talk about whether Obama will fulfill the Black agenda, or meet the demands of various leaders. But the core agenda of African Americans is no different from that of workers across lines of race. They want jobs with good wages, affordable health care, great public schools for their kids. They want the new green economy to include them, not exclude them. Blacks and Latinos suffer the worst poverty. When the economy turns down, they are the first to feel the effects. They have no separate agenda as important as the shared desire for bold action.
In fact, the beltway pundits have it exactly wrong. The biggest danger facing President Obama isn't trying to do too much, or seeking changes that are too big. The biggest danger would be if he took the false counsel of chattering classes and decided to cut back his promises, limit his program, focus on reducing the deficit rather than lifting the economy. Nothing would be more likely to shatter his coalition, and undermine his support. On the core economic issues, across lines of race and region, people are looking for a leader who will get this country back on track.
In this, President elect Obama addresses the unfinished agenda of the Civil Rights Movement. For Dr. Martin Luther King, the first movement of the Civil Rights symphony was to end segregation; the second was to gain voting rights. But the third, and still unfinished movement, was to provide economic opportunity for African Americans so that they too could share in the blessings of prosperity. Now, workers of all races, particularly the young, see the American dream moving further and further out of reach. And now, for the first time since Lyndon Johnson, they have a president committed to be as bold as the problems we face. They are fired up and ready to go.