After eight years under the same president, our country is on the verge of some major changes. This is an exciting time. The election of a new president encourages us to take a collective look in the mirror and it throws the spotlight on the distinctive characteristics of the person we’ve elected. Whom we choose as president says a great deal about us – who we are, what we want, and how we have changed in the past eight years.
It is beyond doubt that Barack Obama’s intelligence, his policy positions, and his remarkable temperament will play a crucial role in the next chapter of world history. At the same time, both the full meaning of this election and its likely impact on the next four years are more difficult to ascertain than we might like to admit.
As a Democrat, it’s tempting to interpret an Obama victory as a clear-cut endorsement, both of Obama specifically and the Democratic platform generally. After all, Obama has practically Kennedyesque personal appeal and he’s spent the past 21 months campaigning relentlessly on the idea that he would bring progressive change to the country by ending the war in Iraq, providing health care to all Americans, and practicing a new kind of politics.
The idea of the election as a direct choice between the policies of Obama and McCain would also fit into a clean, dispositionist narrative of American politics. But what if voters ultimately made their decisions based on other factors? For example, Douglas Schoen of the Wall Street Journal argues that the results of this election are “not a mandate for Democratic policies” because voters acted primarily out of a desire to reject Bush and the Republicans. What about other factors such as the economy or the personal attributes of the candidates?
Though the economy was hardly a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign, his first concrete lead appeared shortly after the advent of the current financial crisis. How do we read the tea leaves? Does the important role of the economy in Obama’s victory hint that his policies couldn’t gain acceptance under normal circumstances, or did the crisis simply prove that that the American people trust Obama’s judgment? What about age, race, or any of the other factors that might have influenced the election? Does Obama’s charisma strengthen or weaken the rationale for electing him? What are the implications for an Obama presidency if the election represented something other than a direct up or down referendum on the president-elect’s policies?
In the context of dispositionist Enlightenment values, elections present the highest, purest forum for individuals to exercise rational choice. By choosing between various candidates and platforms, we communicate our preferences to the government, in turn providing our rulers with a mandate for the choices they make. It’s clear that voting is important and that our choice of a given candidate expresses a preference, but it’s not clear how much of that preference derives from stable views or strictly rational evaluation of qualifications and policy positions. Voters’ perceptions of issues are susceptible to the influence of emotion and identity appeals. Changes in situational factors such as political climate, economic stability, and “October surprises” affect support for candidates without necessarily altering their positions or qualifications. And it’s widely understood that politicians don’t reliably follow through on their campaign promises (for example, even before this election, the bailout made both candidates’ existing proposals unfeasible). What, then, is the nature of the connection between a vote based on proposals from the campaign season and the mandate for the action a new president actually takes?
Even to the extent that we vote based on conscious policy decisions, it is easy to overestimate the degree to which a president’s innate qualities and preferences determine how events unfold during his or her time in office. Our dispositionist assumptions emphasize a view of the chief executive primarily as an independent decision-making actor – the president as “the decider.”
But even the deepest convictions and policy positions of a president-elect are not determinative of what the country experiences in the following four years. No initial mandate can render a president immune to political forces. Preexisting conditions (such as our current economic and military challenges) can complicate or preclude efforts to enact new policy. And every president faces historic changes in global and domestic circumstances that come to define his or her term in office. Good judgment is crucial when meeting such challenges, but ultimately the president’s choices represent only one of many factors shaping the course of events.
Barack Obama’s election has inspired millions and ignited hope around the globe. Given the historic shift in power we’re experiencing, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about what we’ve proven by electing Obama and what the world will look like with him as president of the United States. But in the end, we support candidates for many different reasons and the results of this presidential election don’t unambiguously define the country. Likewise, President Obama may go on to accomplish many things, but it’s unwise to assume – for better or for worse – that the fate of our country lies in his hands. The full meaning of Obama’s presidential victory will take time to emerge. For now, the best first step we can take into the Yes We Can era would be to remember the limitations we all have as individuals and not rely on President Obama to single-handedly change the world.