Barack Obama got lucky last week.
What makes it interesting, though, and justifies talking about it in this blog, is the sort of luck he had. Any Democrat with a pulse, and perhaps without, would have won a presidential election six weeks after the worst economic meltdown since the Great Crash. Yet when the financial crisis suddenly altered the political landscape, Obama's campaign troops were already on the ground in states like Indiana and (God help us all!) South Carolina - safely red states, so everyone thought, that would hardly turn blue this side of the Second Coming.
When this kind of luck happens to a general, we call him a genius. Lady Fortune, as old Nick Machiavelli said, is a fickle dame who must be wooed brashly. No one can accuse Barack Obama of being Miles Standish. Since he arrived on the national scene four years ago he has wooed Lady Fortune brashly indeed, and no one can say she hasn't come across for him.
I did not support Obama in the primaries. No serious issues of principle or policy separated the Democratic contenders. Obama's rhetoric, pitched to the reformist/insurgent wing of the Democratic Party, did not especially move me, and I was mainly concerned to have a candidate tough enough to take on the GOP campaign machine, and familiar enough with the DC political machinery to manage it once in office.
Obama ended up proving his political toughness by beating Hillary, which turned out to be much tougher than beating McCain. And in the early going he is showing that he learned from Bill Clinton's early mistakes - and has the shrewdness, wisdom, and confidence to draw on people who went through that experience.
But in some broader, nearly cosmic way this has turned out to be Obama's moment. The chances of history - the twin upheavals of the financial crisis and the election itself - have suspended the usual laws of political physics in Washington. Hillary's greater experience of the old political physics suddenly matters less, and Obama's freedom from identification with yesterday's battles matters more, than I could have imagined a few months ago.
In fact, Obama comes to office in the midst of what feels like a Seldon crisis. The analogy is not perfect, of course. In Asimov's scheme of psychohistory, a Seldon crisis was not a moment of expanding possibilities but of foreclosed ones - when the circumstances of history so converged that the Foundation had only one possible response to the challenges it faced, and so was compelled to take it. Statesmanship, in Asimov's future history, could smooth the transition but not change the new synthesis that emerged.
Real historical transition crises, of course, are not quite like that. (So far as we can tell.) The Reagan era in American history has come an abrupt, dismal, and so far as I am concerned an unlamented end. What follows might be recovery, collapse, or just more muddling along. Obama's opportunities, and risks, are correspondingly greater than those face by Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow.
No similacrum of Hari Seldon will speak to a crowded room or an empty one to explain the crisis and its solution. Barack Obama will have to figure that out for himself, and history will render its verdict in its usually messy way.
Go to it, Mr. President-Elect!
Read my more formal commentary on the election and transition at the European Courier.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Barack Obama got lucky last week.