Jackson’s better days may be behind him, but in his two presidential
runs he paved a path for Obama to follow. He bridged the gap in the
public consciousness from the civil rights movement to full political
empowerment for anyone regardless of race, and through a cynical time
kept the notion alive that people’s movements do matter. For many he
served as the custodian of hope through a political time governed by
One element of Obama’s political genius is that he succeeded in
marrying the emotion and spiritual power of a movement to the
necessary, less inspiring machinery of electoral politics. Doing so, he
achieved a blend of corporate culture with the innate desire that
people have for something and someone to believe in, to work for.
Obama will need all the help he can get. The transition time will go by
in a flash, and his picks for key posts will start coordinating with
their predecessors in a way that hasn’t happened since Franklin
Roosevelt’s team worked with the outgoing Hoover administration to
craft banking regulations in the Depression winter of 1933.
It is customary for presidents-elect, in their acceptance speech, to
remind the world that there is only one president at a time. In a nod
to the urgency of the times, Obama omitted this perfunctory line. With
the economy in recession, the war in Afghanistan going badly, and even
the Iraqis wanting us out of Iraq, there is little time to be wasted.
The transition is now. Let the word go forth.
Obama also made clear that it will not be easy. Food fights will emerge
among disparate elements of the Democratic coalition. The ceaseless
harping of right-wing radioheads will not cease. The challenges won’t
go away by themselves, no matter how enthusiastic the crowds, no matter
how brilliant the oratory. The new president said in his acceptance
speech that he will be calling for a new spirit of sacrifice among the
American people. This was a welcome change from what passed for
leadership after Sept. 11, 2001, when President George Bush encouraged
us to go to the mall, to defeat al-Qaeda with MasterCard and Visa. The
warranty on that wisdom has clearly expired.
But it will be up to us to respond when the real sacrifices are spelled
out in black and white. For the reality is that not only do we face two
wars, an energy crisis, global warming and a financial meltdown. We
also face the reality that Bush, the great conservative, went and spent
all our money, turning a surplus inherited from none other than Bill
Clinton into a record deficit.
The reality is that Obama will probably be known as the second
consecutive Democratic president to spend his term paying his
Republican predecessor’s bills. Just as Clinton had to trim his social
agenda to bring fiscal accountability back to Washington, Obama, one
day soon, will have to call us in to the kitchen table to have the talk
at which he explains to a hurting nation that it’s time to tighten our
belt. Treasured goals may have to be postponed. Tough priority
decisions will have to be made. Then the hard work will begin.
On Election Night, from voters across the city and the county, I heard
one word used to describe Obama over and over again. The word was cool.
Not cool like hip or with it, but cool like steady and unflappable.
Spoken with adulation by Democrats and begrudgingly by Republicans, it
nonetheless seemed like a nearly unanimous verdict. This guy stays
calms, holds to his message and keeps on keepin’ on. Through the
pressure of the debates, the attack ads, and the unexpected twists and
turns of the long campaign, Obama never seemed to lose his cool.
Facing formidable opponents in both his party and among the
Republicans, he was seen as having the demeanor and the intelligence to
state the facts and advance his argument.
It may be that we have found ourselves a leader who actually can lead.
That may be the reason for the smile behind Jesse Jackson’s tear-filled