Endless analysis in coming months will focus on the meanings of this election, and the interpretations will be as varied as the analysts’ many biases. For there is something here for everyone. This was a cyclical referendum with the pendulum bound to swing back to Democrats. The president-elect represents a new, post-Clinton, beyond centrism, post-racial, new politics, internet-driven phenomenon. The nation is fed up with neoconservative imperialists, radical fundamentalists, and failed supply-siders. And so on.
For those more interested in what happens next, where we go from here, the possibilities are intriguing. President-elect Obama can be a good president, one who reconstructs the best of 20th century economics, foreign policy, and security. Or he can be a great president, one who begins the process of the creating a new 21st century economy, new alliances abroad to address new realities, and new military structures to respond to transformed warfare.
Great presidents do not emerge from quiet times; they arise in times of chaos and crisis. Even those who enter office with modest aspirations in such times are often forced by circumstance to resort to a boldness not available to leaders in more conventional times. And if, as with Lincoln, Roosevelt, and very few others, they have a mandate, even one granted from the people out of desperation, they have the very rare chance for greatness and a place in history.
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To aspire to a great transformational presidency, Barack Obama must combine with his own bold instincts policies and policy-makers who are imaginative, creatively experimental, and sufficiently confident in the sound judgment of the American people to keep us informed and involved and to engage us in the transformations that must occur. Barack Obama was elected for change, but as he himself repeatedly said, it is a question of “change for what.”
The “what” is the process of governance. Moderation, pragmatism, and bipartisanship are necessary, but they do not represent a theory of governance. There have been five large governing ideas in American history: the Founders created a federated republic on an unprecedented scale; Jefferson believed in a transcontinental nation; Lincoln asserted national unity over state’s rights; Roosevelt established a national community; and Truman confirmed that security was international in scope.
Barack Obama now has the opportunity to add a sixth great principle: to preserve the American promise we must transform our nation for a new and vastly different century.