Obama's "Historic" Triumph: Did He Win or Was it a GO George – Get Out George W. Victory by Default?
Historians have to navigate carefully when entering the strange, alluring world of media commentary. To maintain our integrity, we need boundaries. Presumably, those of us who comment believe that offering historical perspective even as history unfolds can elevate public debate, using current events as"teachable moments." But most of the time journalists want us – especially on television – to do things we should not do, namely predict the future or determine the historical meaning of fleeting events as they unfold. Even on the air, historians should dodge certain questions. We should never predict. And we should sidestep premature queries such as"Is George W. Bush the worst president ever," halfway through his term. Anyone who survived oral exams should be able to handle it. During last week's remarkable redemptive moment as Barack Obama won the presidency, it seemed that most of the media wanted to trot out historians to certify that this election was indeed"historic."
Of course, it does not take a Ph.D. in history to note that the first elevation of a black man to the White House in a country with America’s racist past was momentous. Moreover, every presidential election is historic given the attention we pay to voting and the job's significance. But this question of"was this election historic" was fishing in deeper waters. Reporters wanted historians to label 2008 as significant as 1980 when Ronald Reagan launched his revolution or 1960 when John Kennedy inspired a generation or 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt tackled the Great Depression. And historians can safely say that there never had been such a cataclysmic domestic event during a general election campaign as this Crash of 2008. But we all know that it is too early to know whether Barack Obama's presidency will be as transformative as he hopes. He could be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt – or Jimmy Carter redux.
As we wait to watch, and assess the historical impact of Barack Obama's administration, we should start debating just what caused his victory. Here we have a legitimate"teachable" moment – showing how historians start thinking about a problem, start solving an historical mystery. One debate I have started with my students is whether Barack Obama won this election, or John McCain and the Republican lost it?
In asking the question, we have to acknowledge its artificiality. The accurate answer is"yes," meaning it was a combination of factors. But the question gets students thinking about what were the most significant causes. My next step is suggesting that we construct a timeline of turning points, which helps answer the question and gets us to start weighing historical significance. I propose four turning points in this election:
-- The first is Obama's extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. I believe historians will deem it more significant than William Jennings Bryan's 1896 speech because it launched Obama into the celebrity stratosphere and toward the presidency.
-- The second turning point is something that did not happen – or happened subsequently. Had Hillary Clinton run a war room as tough and efficient as her husband's, and had her campaign uncovered the Jeremiah Wright tapes in the winter of 2008 before the Iowa caucuses, I doubt Obama would have won Iowa. This is a mischievous turning point, which raises questions about how historians assess missed opportunities, and speculate about potential outcomes. It also helps raise the question that will emerge as we start debating George W. Bush's legacy – how do we assess something that did not happen, in his case, the fact that as of this writing there has been no catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil since 2001. How much credit can someone get for a bell that did not ring, a fear that was not realized. As for Hillary, how harshly do we judge a candidate or a campaign for overlooking what could have been a knockout blow?
-- The third turning point is the market implosion. Whatever momentum McCain enjoyed after the Russians invaded Georgia during the summer and his energized convention (thanks to Sarah Palin's debut) vanished. As the fourth major disaster under George W. Bush's watch, following 9/11, Iraq and Katrina, the financial crisis made it all but impossible for a Republican to win.
-- Finally, I point to Obama's performance during the debates, especially the third debate. That the young, inexperienced upstart Democrat appeared to be the mature candidate against his older, more experienced rival, made Obama look presidential and helped allay many Americans' anxieties about this relative unknown.
This list is intended to trigger debate. Others would mention Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday strategy that ignored the causcuses, Sarah Palin's nomination, McCain's decision to suspend his campaign, Obama's opposition to the Iraq war. It is important also to go beyond this event-driven list and talk about Obama's extraordinary strategy, his effective use of the internet, and his brilliant ground game, organizing thousands of workers across the nation. And while the four turning points offer two affirmative actions of Obama's and two events beyond his control, I ultimately conclude that Obama was lucky to be blessed with two flawed opponents.
For all the skills Obama demonstrated and the forces he marshaled, I argue that Hillary Clinton, John McCain, George W. Bush, and the Republicans lost this election as much as Obama won. Just as Ronald Reagan won an ABC election in 1980 – anybody but Carter – Obama won a GO George – Get Out George W. Bush --election this year. This conclusion does not diminish from the dare I say it, historic nature of Obama's victory. Rather, it is an early attempt to plunge into the debate assessing the outcome of the wild, rollicking, unpredictable, and potentially transformative 2008 campaign.
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mary lili jory - 8/16/2009
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Gil Troy - 12/4/2008
Glenn Rodeen imputes to me an anti-Obama animus that I did not intend. Rereading his post and mine I dare say it says more about his defensiveness than anything else. For example, saying that the 2004 DNC speech for which I have tremendous respect made Obama a celebrity is not a criticism or an attempt to mock Obama. We live in a celebrity age and it worked for him. Moreover, I am not trying to detract from the redemptive moment that all Americans shared when the first black American was elected president. I'm only trying to do my job and explain it -- and given how much effort Democrats made to link McCain (let alone John Sununu and other Republicans)with Bush, the comment that Bush was not on the ticket is disingenuous. I (and many others) have also explained George H.W. Bush's 1988 victory as essentially Bush winning Reagan's Third Term -- although I (and many others) know that Reagan was not running and that the Constitution bars a third term.
Also, McCain's failure to gain traction on the Bill Ayers slur does not compare to the damage Obama's campaign sustained over the Rev. Wright controversy in the spring. I think that it ultimately had the effect of inoculating Obama in the fall -- nothing new came out related to it and McCain honorably avoided the Wright issue because he feared appearing to be race-baiting. But Obama already had the momentum after Iowa and of course we will never know what might have happened, which I acknowledged by mentioning the difficulties of "what if" scenarios.
Finally, yes, I made a sloppy (probably Freudian) slip when I wrote that the Soviets rather than the Russians invaded Georgia. The fact that Rodden chose to mock me as "believing" the Soviet Union still exists rather than kindly pointing out my error suggests the defensiveness -- and animus - that motivated him. But I do apologize for that slip.
Glenn Rodden - 11/18/2008
I am not sure what Gil Troy is attempting to say in this essay. He begins by telling us that Obama's victory is momentus, but perhaps not "historic." Furthermore, Troy claims that Obama really did not win the election because the real issue was getting George Bush out of office.
This is an odd way to look at the 2008 election because George Bush was not running not running against Obama. The contest was between Obama an McCain and both ran against the Bush administration's record. But this does not deter Gil Troy from launching his "analysis" of the election.
According to Troy, the election had four turning points: 1. Obama's 2004 convention speech which made him a "celebrity." (And we all know that is a bad thing). No where does Troy mention that Obama started gaining momentum when he campaigned against the Iraq War.
2. A non-event. According to Gil Troy, Hillary Clinton would have defeated Obama in the Iowa Caucuses if she had been able to "uncover" the infamous Reverend Wright tapes. How this would have worked is left unexplained. We do know that Obama won in Iowa because he appealed to young voters and they came out to support him. We also know that after months of hearing about Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers the majority of the electorate said that they do not care.
3. Gil Troy argues that the market implosion helped Obama and haulted McCain's momentum after the "Soviets invaded Georgia." The fact that a professional historian writing in 2008 believes that the Soviet Union still exist is appalling, but that is beside the point. The market implosion did not necessarily favor Obama because McCain was also running against Bush. Obama's popularity began to rise because he was able to articulate his differences with the Bush while McCain argued with himself and Palin talked about Bill Ayers between shopping trips.
4. Gil Troy claims that the debates helped Obama and hurt McCain. This may have been true, but how does this point support Troy's thesis that the election was about getting Bush out of office?Bush was not part of the debates and therefore the election could not have been only about getting George out.
Gil Troy concludes his essay as strangely as he began by stating that this "conclusion does not diminish from the dare I say it, historic nature of Obama's victory." Now we agree on something.
Obama's victory on November 4th was indeed historic (no quotes necessary) for many reasons. First, the election of a Obama shows that the majority of American voters consider African-Americans to be a solution and not a problem. The fact that Obama was elected to lead the nation through one of the worst economic crisis in American history tells me that we have reached a historcal mileston.
Second, Obama carried three Southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida) that have long been considered Republican strongholds and by doing so he destroyed the myth that Southern voters will vote against Democrats.
Finally, Obama's victory marks the end of neo-conservativism as a force in American politics. McCain and Palin relied on cultural wedge issues used since Nixon in 1968 to divide Americans and divert them from the economic issues. This fear and smear strategy did not win in 2008 and that is an historic achievement.
Maarja Krusten - 11/15/2008
Some glimpses of how some of this played out, from the WaPo's February 14, 2008 coverage of the Virginia primary (which permitted cross over voting since voters don't register by party in VA). I originally posted this on HNN back then. Again, this is from the coverage of the primary:
"Virginia appeared to be a nearly perfect state for Obama, the strategists said, with its African Americans, college-educated professionals, young voters, independents and disenchanted Republicans voting in the state's open primary.
Heidi Johannesen, 33, of Fairfax said she voted for Obama even though she has voted for George W. Bush. "I'm just looking for change," she said. "We are in desperate need of something different."
[Democratic Gov. Tim] Kaine appealed to the same groups when he was elected. He said Obama's message of governing in a bipartisan way resonated.
"People have gotten so tired of the 'I am right and if you disagree with me you're either corrupt or an idiot' style of politics," Kaine said. "Obama is very strong on that point; he doesn't demonize people."
Obama recorded one of his top showings among white women and scored his first decisive victory among Southern white men. He lost to Clinton among white women by only six percentage points, and he beat the New York senator by 18 points among white men.
Obama beat Clinton for the first time among senior citizens. Swanee Busic, 65, of Reston voted twice for Bush but now sees herself as an independent. "I'm thinking Obama is really someone who's new, who's not so deep in politics," Busic said."
Maarja Krusten - 11/15/2008
Sorry, there's a typo in the sentence: "I thought from glimpses I got of public opinion then that whichever party tapped in to a hunger for national unity stood the best chance of prevailing in 2005."
That should read "I thought from glimpses I got of public opinion then that whichever party tapped in to a hunger for national unity stood the best chance of prevailing in *2008."
Maarja Krusten - 11/15/2008
I didn't speak up about the election before now. Now that it's over, I can share a few observations based on what I've heard people say and write during the last few years. Remember, I'm an Independent and do not belong to either party. I read with interest what people affiliated with both parties say and write.
I suspect for many Americans, Hurricane Katrina was a tipping point. The public reaction immediately after Katrina pointed to what qualities the winning candidate would need to possess in order to prevail in 2008.
I don't know if others picked up on it, but I realized as far back as September 2005 that 2008 well might turn out to be a "bring us together" election. I thought from glimpses I got of public opinion then that whichever party tapped in to a hunger for national unity stood the best chance of prevailing in 2005. No one knew who the Democratic or the Republican candidate would be at that point, needless to say.
I remember reading on a news site in 2005 a comment from a U.S. citizen who lived outside Louisiana. She had watched the Katrina coverage on TV. She said that she was tired of a country that felt as if it starkly was divided into red and blue states, she wanted to feel as if she was a part of a united country again. She mentioned the feeling immediately right after 9/11 and said, "I miss that." I read that and thought, hmmm, interesting, I wonder how widespread that is. Something to keep an eye on.
In New Orleans, I remember seeing an Amfrican-American woman pleading for rescue from the flooded city during Katrian. She said to a TV reporter of the people from the 9th Ward and elsewhere who were trapped in the city, "We're Americans, too." Of *course* they were Americans, too.
Two years later, former Bush aide Michael Gerson pointed to something interesting in his book. Peter Baker, then still with the Washington Post, noted in an article on October 31, 2007 that
"Gerson writes that he urged Bush to fire Rumsfeld after the 2004 election, but that Cheney opposed the move. He recounts meetings in which Cheney's office tried to kill proposals to increase training of death-row defense lawyers, transition assistance for prisoners and aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.
'The storm had also revealed a political and moral chasm in the Republican Party,' he writes. 'The president and I saw Katrina as an opportunity to open a debate on race and poverty. Anti-government Republicans saw Katrina as an opportunity to cut off medicine to old people. It confirmed the worst image of Republicans as the party of shriveled hearts.'"
( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/30/AR2007103001690.html )
What do the exit polls show in 2008?
First, the self identification numbers for party and ideology. In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents.
In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 44% as Moderate. Given the results of the election, President-elect Obama clearly won the votes of more than just the self-identified Democrats.
Polling suggests that post-election hopes are high. Today's New York Times reports in an online entry that "Barack Obama won only 53% of the vote on Election Day, but he is getting a landslide greeting from the American public."
The NYT reports in the article to which I just linked ("High Hopes") that voters gave "Mr. Obama better grades for his conduct during the campaign than any presidential candidate since 1988. Seventy-five percent of the sample gave Mr. Obama a grade of A or B."
The poll discussed at the link above shows significant changes in how Republicans and Independents view Obama in November as compared to their reactions in March of 2008. Where 37% of Republicans listed "angry" when asked how Obama made them feel in March, that number has slipped to 17% now. More Republicans answered "uneasy" than anything else, both in March and now. But there was some movement in other responses.
Where 21% of Republicans listed their reaction as "proud" when asked in March how Obama made them feel, that number has risen to 37% in November.
What about the third of the people who went to the polls who belong to neither party? The number for Independents was 39% who answered proud when asked in March how Obama made them feel, in November the answer for proud is up to 68%. For Democrats, the proud numbers were 60% in March and 92% in November.
The NYT also reports that 80% of respondents in a Gallup poll thought Obama will "make a sincere effort to work with Republicans to find solutions." Based on what the woman said while watching Katrina coverage on TV, those numbers do not surprise me.
Although largely missing on HNN, except indirectly, if you knew what to watch for and kept an eye out for it, there were all sorts of clues out there during the last few years that suggested what might win over a majority of voters in 2008. The signs did not all relate to party identification or past choices. Consider, for example, the report earlier this year that Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Richard Nixon's daughter, reportedly contributed financially to Obama's campaign. Mrs. Eisenhower showed enormous courage towards the end of her father's term, serving as one of his staunchest defenders.
- Pittsburgh native David McCullough's next book will focus on generations of Northwest pioneers
- British historian Sheila Lecoeur is on trial for defamation
- Jim Downs laments that Americans still aren’t being taught LGBT history
- Historian Jeremy Kuzmarov calls on Obama to pardon Ethel Rosenberg
- Garry Wills says there’s one human test we can use to decide who’s the better candidate: Trump or Clinton