Since the election of President-elect Barack Obama, I have been struck by the disparate reactions that range from elation and jubilation on one side of the political spectrum, to downright fear and anxiety on the other. I don’t recall such strident sentiments evoked during previous presidential turnovers. Certainly, the election of an African-American is an historic event to be noted and commemorated, but he was not elected because he is African-American.
As a political junkie, I watch campaigns and elections intently and seek to understand the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, wondering about their capacity to bring about change and how they will impact the American public. While every president is elected with great expectations, few deliver meaningful and lasting changes consistent with their campaign promises. The transition from candidate to elected official is a metamorphosis that moves a person from outside the “system of government” to the inside, where they must step up and perform alongside new players with their own interests. With our governmental system of checks and balances, change is not given, nor easy nor simple.
During my tenure in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of observing the transition from Reagan to Bush and from Bush to Clinton. Turning over the reins of government was relatively smooth and seamless without much rancor and drama from both administrations. Bush (41) was a Republican succeeding two-term Reagan, another Republican. His misfortune was facing an entrenched Democratic Congress that had been fighting with Reagan for eight years. All they could do was to use their power of veto to keep a balance in government. Bush was driven from his “no new taxes” pledge in the middle of his first term and lost his re-election.
Clinton succeeded Bush (41) and had great expectations for his agenda even though he was elected with less than half of the popular vote. He thought that a Democratic presidency and a Democratic majority in the Congress could deliver on campaign promises. To his dismay, the entrenched Democratic Congress thought they knew more about public policy-making than the young new president. Together, they failed to perform to the satisfaction of the public and the House of Representatives turned to a Republican majority only two years into the Clinton administration. Over eight years, Clinton and Congress reached agreement on welfare reform and balancing the federal budget, but little else.
President-elect Obama will enter the White House with a majority of the popular vote and with substantial Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. Many of those newly elected officials rode on the success of the Obama campaign. There is an expectation that our new president will have a Congress much more amenable to supporting his campaign promises than many previously elected presidents.
Following Bush (43) who also had the benefit of a Congress with a majority of members from his own party when he was first elected, President-elect Obama has already announced his ambitions to undo many of the changes that were delivered by Bush and the Republican Congress.
In our current economic state of volatility with all the evidence of a recession, a concomitant decline in manufacturing and consumer spending, as well as our recent experience with the banking crisis and the foreclosure of homes, we all have hopes that the new administration will perform on the campaign pledge to produce “change we can believe in.” At the same time, we are also fearful of the unknown and we do not want our world, our country or our lives to fall in to despair. I guess the range of emotions is justified after all. We will simply have to wait to see how President Obama performs.
As a nation, we need our economy to turn upward. We need jobs to be created. We need the opportunity for wealth creation. We are watching and hopeful; we are anxious and fearful. We are in this together. We are Americans who have met crises before and successfully navigated our way through with notable results. Starting out with a positive outlook and openness of mind is a good approach.