Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008 | To govern, goes the French saying, is to choose, and the choices President-elect Barack Obama has made in the month since his election are so different from those made by President George W. Bush after the previous two elections as to wonder if they are both working under the same system.
Obama clearly intends to govern by majority. Bush preferred — and, amazingly, succeeded at — governing by minority. He didn’t govern well, of course, and leaves office as the most unpopular president since ratings began, but he was re-elected. Richard Nixon also was re-elected, and look at what history has done to him.
Eight years ago almost to the day, just after the Supreme Court made Bush president despite his loss in the election, I wrote a column predicting that because Bush lacked a mandate and even legitimacy, he would be forced to seek consensus. Because he had run as a centrist whose platform was not radically different from Al Gore’s, I supposed that bi-partisanship would be his preferred path.
We didn’t know much about Karl Rove and his “50 percent plus 1” rule at the time. Rove argued that Bush didn’t need bi-partisanship because there were enough conservatives in America to create “a permanent Republican majority.” Since Bush had won only 47.8 percent of the vote and lost the election by 550,000 votes, it was a strange argument, but instead of sending Rove back to Texas, Bush gave him a job allowing him to intrude his weird view of elections into something he knew nothing about — governing.
Far from creating a permanent majority, Bush’s governing has left the Republican Party in its worse shape since the Roosevelt years, contracted to a party whose base now consists of the South (and not all of it anymore), plus parts of the plains states and Appalachia. Added together, that comes nowhere close to a majority.
Rove’s strategy of solidifying the conservative base and ignoring the rest was demolished by Obama, who won every demographic group but the elderly and cut deeply into the GOP base in the South and Southwest. He won the young, blacks and Hispanics, but did so well that he could have won without any of those three groups.
Despite their grumbling, 83 percent of Hillary Clinton’s supporters rallied to Obama, and despite his color, he did better than either Gore or John Kerry with white voters. He even won a majority of voters with incomes over $200,000 — the group whose taxes he had promised to raise. Relative to all other presidential elections over the past quarter century, Obama’s win was a landslide and unlike Bush in either 2000 or 2004, he takes office with a mandate from the electorate.
The financial crisis helped Obama, but was not the main factor in his win. Most electoral charting shows that he took the lead over Republican presidential nominee John McCain months prior to the crisis and never relinquished it, though McCain got a brief boost from Sarah Palin, his surprise vice-presidential nominee. Obama’s ace in the hole was his serenity. Sen. Hillary Clinton and McCain tried every possible way to get under his skin, and both failed miserably. The president-elect is by any measure a very cool cat, and if this quality was always destined to appeal to young voters, in the end it appealed to every group but the elderly.
The government Obama is putting together shows a high degree of self confidence. Previous presidents came to Washington with vast entourages of cronies — Californians with Ronald Reagan, Georgians with Jimmy Carter, Texans with George W. Bush. Obama’s government, on the other hand, reflects the nation, not Illinois (given the state of Illinois public affairs, one can be grateful). “I cannot forget,” Obama said on election night, “the 47 percent that did not vote for me. I am their president, too.”
That statement alone separates him from Bush, whose earliest policy decisions were designed to alienate those who did not vote for him. His rejection in early 2001 of the Kyoto Treaty on reducing carbon dioxide emissions cost him not only the support of public opinion but also of the scientific community, our allies abroad and even his own Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who would soon be forced out of office.
For months prior to 9/11, Bush showed that his policy was to turn America — one of the post-World War II founders of international law — into a rogue, unilateralist nation that took no account of either domestic or foreign opinion. In addition to rejecting Kyoto, Bush opposed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, World Criminal Court, treaties banning land mines and biological weapons and the U.N.’s programs to limit world population growth.
Those rejections were a prelude to his rejection of the United Nations in order to wage a lonely war in Iraq — a war he now leaves to Obama to end.
Even on Iraq, Obama shows he intends to seek consensus. Bob Gates will remain as secretary of defense. An ex-Marine general and former Republican named James Jones will be the national security adviser. Obama says he will stick to his plan to bring all combat troops home within 16 months, but that it must be done in consultation with the military and must not put our forces in danger.
Obama’s real national security test will come not in Iraq but in Afghanistan. His campaign message was that he, unlike Bush, would focus military efforts on Afghanistan, the country from which the 9/11 attacks were launched.
The good news about Afghanistan is that it, unlike Iraq, has the full support of NATO and allied combat forces.
The bad news is that no outside power has ever prevailed in Afghanistan. It is a place where, over centuries, wars are always lost. The Afghans hate all foreign presence and out-wait every opponent, picking them off slowly over years and decades, waiting until they are weary of dying. Obama may achieve consensus Afghanistan, but it will be one in defiance of history.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.