THE MEDIA HOSANNAS went up long before Barack Obama, a.k.a. “the chosen one,” went through the formality of being chosen as the country’s 44th president. For months prior to Obama’s victory last night, Americans were told that this was a “historic election.” Swooning headlines celebrated Obama’s “flawless campaign” and his “epic march to the White House,” as if that destination had already been made official.
Those who thought election night might restore some semblance of sobriety to the national media would have been in for a disappointment. In preparation for the big night, MSNBC, increasingly a caricature of pro-Obama excess, unveiled a new motto – “Watch MSNBC, and experience the power of change” – eerily reminiscent of the Obama campaign’s stump slogans. All that was missing, Mark Finkelstein of NewsBusters observed, was a voiceover from the nominee confirming, “I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.”
Something similar might have been said of the election-night coverage, whose tenor was unmistakably triumphalist. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, unafraid of hyperbole, likened Obama’s election to Nelson Mandela’s 1994 victory in post-apartheid South Africa, the first democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Iran’s election in 1997. (Which country the United States was supposed to represent Amanpour never made quite clear.) On Fox News, a tearful and overcome Juan Williams declared that this was not only a victory for Obama and the nation but also for “our children.” That the election of a new president might demand something more reflective than cheerleading and melodrama was a view with no sizable constituency among commentators.
To be fair, only the most hardened cynic would have been completely immune to the significance of the moment. The election of America’s first black president is indeed a “historic” occasion and a proper source of national pride. That fact is all the more impressive given that, 20 years after Jesse Jackson’s failed bid for the presidency, Obama ran a campaign largely free of racial demagoguery. And whatever one’s personal views of Obama, one couldn’t help but marvel at the prodigious political skills of a candidate who began as a newcomer and ended up as a symbol of inevitability itself – all within the span of a year.
It takes nothing away from Obama’s dizzying ascent to note that he benefited from a confluence of luck and good fortune unprecedented in recent political history. Defeats served him well. It was fortunate, in retrospect, that Obama lost a 2000 congressional primary race to Black Panther Bobby Rush. That setback allowed him to seek a Senate seat and thereby to rise to national fame as a speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It was fortunate, too, that so much of his bitterly contested primary battle with Hillary Clinton turned on Obama’s friendship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, among other unsavory associations. By the time the McCain campaign belatedly decided to make them an issue in the election’s closing weeks, much of their impact had been blunted by Democrats.
National disasters were anything but for the Obama campaign. Amid the meltdown of the markets this fall, Obama was only too happy to stand back and let an unnervingly erratic John McCain shake the public’s confidence in his capacity to lead. All this, moreover, occurred against the background of a political climate deeply unfavorable for Republican political prospects. Even the sole piece of truly bad luck for Obama – the tragic passing of his 86-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, on the eve of the election – somehow seemed to conform to the transcendent, quasi-mythical narrative that the Obama campaign had become. For all the idol-worship of his infatuated fan base, there truly were moments in the campaign when it seemed that the Illinois senator could do no wrong.
Now reality must intervene. With the longest campaign in memory finally over, it is only fair to ask: Who have Americans elected? Is it the candidate who vowed to meet “without preconditions” with the world’s dictators, suggesting that it was “ridiculous” to oppose such presidential-level diplomacy, or is it the cool exponent of realpolitik who insisted that all talks with America’s enemies must be carefully orchestrated by advisors? Is it the candidate who declared himself a supporter of “clean coal” technology, or the candidate who pledged to “bankrupt” coal companies with carbon taxes?
And how will a President Obama govern? Will he be the candidate who refuses to admit his error on the surge of troops in Iraq, and who promises to “end the war” on a political timeline, or will he become a foreign policy pragmatist who will heed the advice of commanders on the ground? Will he act like the candidate who calls the national debt a “domestic enemy” and promises tax relief for the middle class, or the candidate who would swell the debt by $3.5 trillion and redistribute wealth to the 40 percent of households that pay no income taxes at all? Will he live up to his billing as the “post-racial” candidate, or is the country in store for a painful four years in which to disagree with the new president is to be suspected of the oldest hatred? Nothing in Obama’s record suggests an obvious answer.
This is not entirely the president elect’s fault. No small measure of the blame must go to a media that too often acted as a de facto amplifier for the Obama campaign, raking John McCain over the coals for every perceived slight to its preferred candidate and abandoning any pretence to objectivity. If, on the morning after, voters know little about Obama other than the “historic” nature of his triumph, the media’s embarrassingly slanted coverage surely is one reason why. Barack Obama has made history. But the most pressing question remains: Where will he go from here?