Barack Obama and the Changing World

By EDWARD LAZARUS


Thursday, Nov. 06, 2008

The world is meaningfully different now than it was just two days ago. The possibility of something momentous and the reality of it once stared at each other across an enormous chasm. That chasm has vanished.

The pundits have not changed. They remind us of all the obstacles, social and political, that an Obama Administration will face.

They focus on the undeniable divisions that yet remain, the many places still deep blue or deep red, among states, across neighborhoods, inside families. They see the smoldering resentments of Palin's army. They see a Congress almost denuded of moderate Republicans, and thus a minority of the unyielding hard-right. They see a nation drained of wealth that must assume new and staggering financial burdens to solve its problems. They see a portion of the electorate unwilling to support and perhaps unable to comprehend a black man as President.

All this is true, in the same way that polls are usually true. They capture a snapshot of what the world looks like at a particular instant.

But snapshots are often grossly incomplete and unimaginative. As this one is.

Set aside for the moment the history-making idea that, in a nation born into the sin of slavery, where some of us remember firsthand state-sponsored racial segregation, where in many of our own lifetimes interracial marriage was a crime, a child of interracial marriage has been elected President, and by a resounding margin with support in every quarter of the country.

Set aside, for the moment, the spontaneous euphoria felt in cities across the nation as crowds burst into the streets. Set aside the euphoria felt across the globe at the news that America now has as President-elect a man capable of seeing the United States not only as it likes to see itself, but also as others have come to see it.

Instead, imagine where we might be a year, or two, or four, or even eight years from now.

Barack Obama is a first-term Senator who defeated, in the Democratic primary, a field of impressive rivals. These rivals included John Edwards, the party's previous vice-presidential candidate, with strong appeal to working-class voters. Even more strikingly, they also included Senator Hilary Clinton, an impressively-accomplished Senator with the best-known and most popular name in Democratic politics, who enjoyed the backing of almost the entire Democratic establishment, including her husband, an immensely popular former president.

Obama's victory did not happen by a fluke or by the tactical mistakes of others or the tactic brilliance of Obama's own campaign.

It happened because of him. It happened because Barack Obama has an ability to inspire people at the grassroots that has been unseen in American politics since at least Ronald Reagan's time, and I would say much longer ago than that. It happened because Obama is the greatest orator that American politics has seen at least since Martin Luther King and perhaps longer ago than that - a point he proved yet again with his gracious and inclusive victory speech on election night. It happened because, for all his youth and inexperience, he showed a steady hand and sober judgment, day in and day out, for the twenty-two grueling months of the campaign. And it happened because, thanks to his exceptional intellect and political instincts, he ended the campaign as an even more formidable candidate than when he began it.

These talents will only be magnified once Obama ascends to the office of the presidency. And over time, their impact is likely to be incredibly profound. Reason, persuasion, and inspiration are exceptionally powerful tools of governance, even if we have almost forgotten them. Using them, Obama changed, perhaps forever, how political campaigns are run. As President, he will use them to change much more than that.

In short, the world is different than it was last week less, in part because of what has already happened and in part because of what will happen next, notwithstanding the stubborn fissures within our political culture and the daunting problems we face. This week, most of the talk is of the historic achievement of becoming the first black President. By the time Obama is done, after years of our listening to his eloquent music of inclusiveness, the historic achievement will be that what was previously unimaginable, has become unexceptional.


Edward Lazarus, a FindLaw columnist, writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books -- most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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