Rebecca Deen

Political Science Department chair weighs in on Barack Obama’s election as president

By Jim Patterson

Assess President Obama’s first weeks in office.

Common wisdom is that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. President Obama has tried to use both in his first several weeks in office. In his first address to Congress, he tried to give both soaring rhetoric and practical explanations on his priorities. One measure to assess such speeches is the number of times the president is applauded by both sides of the partisan divide. Strikingly, on education, health care reform and other topics, virtually every member of Congress was on his or her feet. The challenge will be to translate this into votes on legislation.

“More striking were the press reports of folks who, even though they didn’t support Obama in the election, were moved by the importance of the day.“

What are his biggest challenges?

There are many. Two broad categories would be foreign and economic policy. He has announced a timeline for withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, and the challenge there will be in implementation. The difficulties in Afghanistan are also complex, and there is less consensus on how to proceed. These issues alone are enormous. But the most pressing crisis is the financial mess. Will the money spent on the Troubled Asset Relief Program be enough to get credit flowing? Will the huge sums of money spent on economic stimulus revive a slumping economy? What will become of the automobile industry? Of course, these questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

He hasn’t been afraid to appoint rivals to his cabinet.

It’s very interesting. My first reaction was, “Is he going to leave any qualified Democrats where they are?” He pilfered the rolls of the Senate and the governorships. I think the whole group is interesting. Hillary Clinton by herself is a fascinating choice. I think it says more about her than him, frankly. It signals that she probably knows she wouldn’t be successful with another run at the presidency. So I think politically it suggests that she’s back in the camp. And what it says about him is that he’s just a very confident person who wants the best advice. She certainly has a long record of ties and connections with people across the globe. Her international trips so far have signaled not only the new diplomatic posture expected with a new administration but also a prominent role for her.

How significant was the inauguration?

The word “historic,” though often overused, is appropriate. Not only was President Obama’s inauguration so important for who he is—the first African-American, mixed-race president—but also for the outpouring of emotion from ordinary Americans. Yes, there were those present who had voted for him. More striking were the press reports of folks who, even though they didn’t support Obama in the election, were moved by the importance of the day. The scenes from the National Mall captured it perfectly—overflowing with people who felt they must be a part of the event. Those pictures will forever be imprinted in our collective conscience.

Was the election really about change?

The context of this election was extremely important in terms of President Bush’s approval rating. That had a lot to do with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the economic situation even prior to the collapse of the banking sector. That set the context for the election, which led toward an anti-incumbency bias. I’m not so sure that it says as much about where we’re headed as a rejection of where we’ve been.

Why did Obama win?

It was a Democratic year, as evidenced by the success of the Democrats in Congress and in state houses across the country. It was a Democratic year for the very reasons that I talked about: macroeconomics, collapse of the banking sector and President Bush’s dismally low approval rating. With the collapse of the banking sector, we had a chance to see the candidates behaving in ways that would give us a taste of what they would look like as presidents. Obama did a better job. He came across as more steadfast, more prudent, and the charges that he leveled at Sen. McCain as being erratic, stuck.

What factor did ethnicity play in the election?

It was huge. Certainly it had an impact on African-American turnout. They voted almost unanimously for Sen. Obama. But it also had an impact in unexpected ways. You heard a lot from new voters and from young voters that Sen. Obama was able to bring in, that they really saw this as a chance to turn the page on race relations. And for Generation X and Baby Boomers, it was an opportunity to reject the Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton old way of politics for something new and different. So I think it had a huge impact but in ways that social scientists will still be measuring years from now.

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