America’s new president

Time for a change

From Economist.com

Every president says he will unite America. Can Barack Obama do so?

AFTER a long and hard-fought election, and after eight years of bitter partisanship, the new president-elect was in a gracious mood. He told Americans “Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements. Republicans want the best for our nation, and so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes.” Unfortunately, George Bush, who said those words in 2000, did not govern that way.

Eight years later, Barack Obama also ran as a uniter, and on Tuesday November 4th won the presidency. His supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park cheered John McCain’s gracious concession speech, and Mr Obama’s kind words for his opponent. Mr McCain, having quelled the booing that initially greeted Mr Obama’s name, went on to say that “This is an historic election, and I recognise the special significance it has for African-Americans”. Black supporters called out to correct him: “for all Americans!” Then, as the speeches ended and reality sank in, Mr Obama’s supporters began celebrating in earnest, laughing, crying, dancing and embracing each other. As people streamed out of the park, a black woman leaving the rally could not believe the balmy weather: “70 degrees in November in Chicago.” Her husband added “and a black man is the president.” Change, to use Mr Obama’s sometimes vague slogan, seemed palpably in the air.

But can Mr Obama really change America’s viciously partisan atmosphere? There are reasons for both hope and caution. Mr Obama starts with an advantage: before the election, Gallup, a pollster, showed him with a 62% approval rating: the highest of any presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. That may go up as he basks in the post-election glow, gives speeches but does not yet have to govern. Americans have a deep respect for the presidency and even grumpy conservatives were ready to accept, on Wednesday morning, that like him or not, Mr Obama was their president.

But Mr Clinton’s experience offers a cautionary tale. He and a Democratic congress quickly overreached themselves, pursuing the divisive social issue of gays in the military and failing spectacularly to enact a sweeping reform of health care. Mr Obama would do well to learn from that era.

Mr Obama told an abortion-rights group during the campaign that the first thing he would do as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would do away with many state-level restrictions on abortion. If he does so, he could find his popularity immediately on the wane. Americans tolerate abortion rights but most people approve of restrictions like parental-notification laws. But Mr Obama also said during the campaign that he would sign a ban on late-term abortions, if they included exceptions for the life and health of the mother. If he pushed Congress to send him such a bill, he could not only win himself some credit with America’s broad middle, but also get some grudging respect from social conservatives.

Iraq and Afghanistan are thorny problems, too. The Democrats’ left wing will want a quick exit from Iraq. But politically they are no great threat. Americans have reached something of a consensus: the surge and other factors have pacified Iraq beyond what could have been hoped for in early 2007, when Mr Obama began his campaign as an anti-war candidate. He could look for ways to withdraw cautiously, steadily putting pressure on the Iraqis to reconcile politically and take over militarily.

The economy, too, is a policy headache, but not so politically sensitive as the latter days of the campaign made it seem. Mr Obama is no socialist. He is surrounded by moderate and Clintonite economic advisers. He will run down some political capital no matter which of many unpalatable options—on taxation, spending, regulation, the housing market and so forth—he chooses. But his gift for oratory might create a sense of shared sacrifice that will help him to muddle through.

Old conservative bastions like Indiana and Virginia voted for a young, liberal, black president (and Mr Obama leads in North Carolina too) so much has changed already. But bringing left and right, red and blue together will not be as easy as talking about it. Mr Obama has his work cut out.

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