Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

What Barack Obama's Victory Means, and How It Should be Used


Wednesday, Nov. 05, 2008

How momentous is the election of the first African-American President of the United States? Never mind what it says about how far we have come since slave traders brought millions of unfortunate souls across the Atlantic, or since the Constitution brokered what William Lloyd Garrison called a "covenant with death" and an "agreement with hell." Consider this: When Barack Obama was born in 1961, twenty-one American states still banned interracial marriage.

To be sure, other countries have made greater progress in even less time. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was overwhelmingly elected President of South Africa immediately upon the elimination of the apartheid system. But of course, South Africa is a majority-black country. African-Americans make up only about one-eighth of the U.S. population. Obama could not have been elected without strong support from the white majority.

Thus, any fair-minded reckoning of what Obama has wrought must begin with his election's historical significance in representing progress towards racial equality. After months of discussion of the "Bradley effect," and both a primary and general election campaign in which racial anxieties were always close to the surface, race ultimately played no more than a marginal role in this election. That in itself is remarkable and cause for celebration.

But the well-deserved feel-good moments will pass quickly, whereupon President Obama will find himself leading a nation, and a world, in crisis. Barring a depression or a Japan-style "lost decade," he will benefit from the mismatch between the business cycle and the electoral calendar: Even a very long and deep recession by modern standards - say, one lasting nearly two years - will give way to a recovery in time for the 2012 re-election campaign.

However, while that would be good for Obama's prospects for a two-term Presidency, such a scenario could seriously limit his ability to achieve his long-term substantive goals. Even if the economy begins to recover in time for the 2010 mid-term elections, many people will likely still be suffering from diminished wealth, unemployment, and worse. Moreover, the electorate tends to punish the incumbent party regardless of where the blame lies, and the President's party tends to lose seats in Congress in mid-term elections even in good times. Thus, in 2010 we can expect the Democratic Party to give back some of the gains it achieved in yesterday's elections.

Accordingly, President Obama may have a relatively brief window in which to work with a strongly Democratic Congress. How should he spend his political capital? In this column, I will offer the President-elect some unsolicited advice on how to prioritize his goals.

To Succeed, An Economic Stimulus Plan Should Serve Multiple Goals

With the economy in a recession that is nearly sure to worsen before it gets better, now is no time to worry about the deficit. Campaigning against earmark-fighting Senator John McCain, Senator Obama drank the rein-in-the-spending Kool-Aid, promising to go "line by line" through the federal budget to slash unnecessary government programs. Yet as President Franklin D. Roosevelt learned to his chagrin, attempts to control government spending when the private sector is tapped out will almost certainly make matters worse.

For at least the next year, we need more government spending, not less. Given the choice between slashing government spending and building bridges to nowhere in every state, the latter would actually be preferable, because paying people to build even useless bridges at least puts money into the private economy: The builders use their paychecks to buy food and clothing, and to pay their mortgages.

But of course, we can do better than bridges to nowhere. As last year's Minneapolis bridge disaster illustrated, America's infrastructure has been neglected for too many years. A massive program of rebuilding would be money well spent at any time and, particularly if it were launched quickly, such a program could stimulate the economy while serving the nation's long-term interests.

That basic principle should guide President Obama and the new Congress: The Keynesian benefits of deficit spending should be coupled with programs that are worthwhile in their own right - provided that they can infuse cash into the system quickly. Indeed, if President Bush wants to improve his standing as he leaves office, he could do no better than to consult with President-elect Obama on what programs can be funded now, rather than waiting for the economy to sink further for the two-and-a-half months until Inauguration Day.

There is certainly no shortage of programs that could be funded quickly. Granted, some of the most worthwhile investments - in green technology, improved health care, and education, to name three of the President-elect's priorities - will only pay off over the long term. Yet that is no reason not to look for ways to hit the ground running.

For example, with state and local revenues on the decline, the federal government could greatly increase grants in aid to states to hire and retain teachers. Rather than laying off teachers, and thus adding to the nation's economic woes and harming our students, our public schools could be hiring more teachers, thus reducing class size while buoying local economies.

The Right Tax Plan Will, Indeed, Spread the Wealth - and Form Part of an Effective Economic Stimulus Plan As Well

Notwithstanding the hyping of Joe the Plumber's comments, Barack Obama is no socialist. Nevertheless, the failure of the McCain campaign's efforts to dissuade voters from supporting a candidate who proposed to spread the wealth provides another opportunity for President Obama when he takes office. In electing Obama despite the criticism of his proposed repeal of the Bush tax cuts, the nation gave him a clear mandate to enact that proposal.

To be sure, Obama's redistributionist goals are modest. He simply wants to restore the top two income tax brackets to where they were under President Clinton. That means raising the second highest bracket (on earnings between $250,000 and $357,700) from 33 percent to 36 percent, and raising the highest bracket (on earnings above $357,700) from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. These tax increases would be slightly more than offset by reductions in the taxes paid by people earning less than $200,000 per year. (The precise cutoffs are based on current brackets, which change slightly from year to year because brackets are indexed to inflation.)

During the campaign, Senators Obama and Biden sold their proposed repeal of the Bush tax cuts as a matter of basic fairness. They argued that richer Americans - in light of their greater capacity to pay and the fact that they benefit disproportionately from the nation's wealth - should shoulder a bit more of the tax burden than middle-class Americans do.

The fairness argument has a great deal to it, but the Obama tax proposal now should also be sold as part of an overall economic stimulus plan. Wealthy people save a higher percentage of their earnings than people in the middle class do, because the latter need their paychecks for necessities. Thus, redistributing some of the tax burden from the middle class to the well-to-do would boost consumer spending at a time when it is desperately needed.

Disengage From Iraq, but Beware of Adding Troops in Afghanistan

On the foreign policy side, President-elect Obama has a clear mandate for disengaging from Iraq. From the earliest days of the campaign, he declared an intention to be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were reckless going in. Unfortunately, on this issue, more than any other, the new President faces only unattractive choices.

President Obama will be tempted to play the Nixon-to-China card. Having ridden the anti-war vote to the Democratic nomination, he will have the credibility to say that the facts on the ground preclude dramatic reductions in troop strength. Certainly, that would be the politically cautious thing to do, because a renewed uptick in violence in Iraq following American withdrawals will lead erstwhile Bush and McCain supporters to accuse Obama of having squandered the gains of the surge.

Nonetheless, President Obama should stick to his plan to get out of Iraq expeditiously. No matter when American troops withdraw, there is a risk of renewed violence, but in the long run, our military presence in Iraq fuels anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world.

That sober fact should also lead President Obama to reconsider one of his other military proposals. For quite some time now, Obama has been arguing that the commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq has been hampering our ability to fight al Q'aeda and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. He proposes to add to the military force there.

This plan carries enormous risks and should only be carried out, if at all, with a clear exit strategy. As one world power after another has discovered, Afghanistan is not an easy place to occupy. The Iraq logic applies to Afghanistan as well: The American presence is a gift to jihadist recruiters. Moreover, continued incursions into Pakistan risk further alienating that nuclear-armed state.

To the extent that tactics like the surge of troops in Iraq have contributed to a reduction in violence, they are at best short-term measures. In the long run, the strategic interests of the United States are ill-served by occupying the territory of Muslim (or any other) countries. President-elect Obama and his foreign policy advisors surely know this to be true, but the incoming Administration's proposals on Afghanistan nonetheless appear focused too much on the short term, and too little on the nation's long-term strategic interests.

After an Acrimonious Campaign, Build a Bridge to John McCain

Finally, President-elect Obama has before him an opportunity that was also given to President Bush in 2000, but which President Bush cast away: the chance truly to be a uniter, not a divider. By temperament a compromiser, Obama should reach out to the remaining moderates in the Republican Party. He has already hinted that such stalwarts as Richard Lugar and Colin Powell would have influence, or even formal positions, in his Administration.

Much of the medium-term political future of the United States will depend on how the Republican Party regroups after yesterday's defeat. It is possible that sincere soul-searching will lead the Party toward the new center of public opinion. That movement would mean losing - or at least dramatically softening - the party's rigidly anti-government, anti-tax, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-science, and military interventionist stances. If the Republican Party does move to the center and away from its extreme recent views, then Obama should be able to work with the new Republican Party to find common ground.

Another possibility, however, is that the hard right will consolidate its grip on a shrunken Republican Party. They will dismiss the 2008 results as the product of a perfect storm: an unusually appealing Democratic nominee; an erratic Republican Presidential campaign; a very unpopular war; and a terrible economy. If this view prevails, Sarah Palin, or someone with views similar to hers, will lead the Republican Party to long-term minority-party status.

Under those circumstances, President Obama would do well to try to expand the Democratic Party. One dramatic way to do so would be to reach out to John McCain, offering him the opportunity to reclaim his maverick past. McCain will be up for re-election in 2010. What better way for President Obama to demonstrate his own ability to move past old divisions, than to induce McCain to join his administration rather than run again for his Senate seat?

McCain has shown a moderate streak in the past on several key issues, including American treatment of foreign detainees, global warming, and campaign finance. President Obama could give McCain a portfolio on any of these subjects. Doing so would be good for McCain, good for the country, and good for Obama's re-election prospects. And given the length of Presidential campaigns, the 2012 race should be just about ready to start right now.

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University. He is the author of No Litmus Test: Law Versus Politics in the Twenty-First Century and he blogs at

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard