In the aftermath of a truly historic election, the right wing and its long-time allies have been trying to regroup and get a handle on just exactly what happened. Right-wing radio talk show hosts, after calling Obama every conceivable name and claiming that his victory would mean an end to civilization, are now contending that he “has no mandate to govern.”
Right-wing pundits now emphasize that President-elect Obama’s congressional majority equals Bill Clinton’s in 1992, that his margin of victory fell below George H.W. Bush’s in 1988, and anything else they can think of to minimize what has transpired. Some are even trying to talk themselves into believing that Obama will be a one-term president, like Jimmy Carter, and will set the stage for a new Ronald Reagan to emerge.
It is not just the usual suspects of the right-wing media who are minimizing Obama’s triumph, however. The editors of Newsweek, for example, who traditionally claim to be “above” partisan politics, have proclaimed the U.S. to be “still” a center-right country. Their logic is that Obama must “move to the center” (by which they can only mean to the right) to govern. They insist that “radical” proposals like major social investments in jobs and infrastructure, revival of progressive taxation, and enactment of anything beyond the most limited labor and social legislation, will fail because it has little real support among the people. The unspoken fear is that Obama will move to the left, and in the process move the center of politics to the left.
All of these arguments fly in the face of the evidence. Barack Obama received more votes in absolute numbers than any presidential candidate in history. While the rate of voter turnout fell far below the numbers one finds in the rest of the developed world, it was the largest vote in decades. Barack Obama’s 8-million-plus popular vote margin was the biggest for any Democratic presidential candidate since Johnson’s 1964 landslide. Only Johnson in 1964 and Franklin Roosevelt in his four victories did better than Obama in percentage terms among Democratic presidential candidates since the Civil War.
Put in historical perspective, Obama distinguished himself significantly from other recent Democratic presidential winners. Unlike Carter who enjoyed large polling margins throughout much of the campaign in 1976, Obama did not nearly lose this election. Nor did he win in a three-way race as Bill Clinton did in 1992 and 1996, during both of which Clinton failed to win a clear majority. Obama fared far better than John F. Kennedy’s razor-thin majority in 1960 and Harry Truman’s narrow upset victory over the Republican candidate in 1948.
Obama won a solid victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College and will have a solid majority in Congress.
Obama certainly has a mandate, and it is a mandate for change. Obama’s slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” was reminiscent of slogans like the “New Deal” of Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign and the “Great Society” banner under which Johnson won in 1964. In the latter cases, those slogans translated into the major policy domestic agendas of those administrations.
For the people who elected Obama and the increased Democratic majority, “Change We Can Believe In” isn’t about bailouts for corporations and banks. It isn’t about wearing American flag pins on your lapel while the military budget continues to escalate and bankers and corporate CEOs wine and dine. “Change We Can Believe In” isn’t about a spruced-up version of trickle-down theory or the same policies behind a fresh face in the White House.
It is about reversing and repealing the policies that have led to both the immediate financial crisis and looming global depression. It is about ending the post-World-War-II policies that led to the long-term stagnation and decline of the labor movement. It is about creating a national public health care program more than 50 years after it was established in other major industrial nations, and handling a national debt which has increased 10 times since Ronald Reagan became president in 1981.
A “single payer” national health system — known as “socialized medicine” in the rest of the developed world — should be an essential part of the change that the core constituencies which elected Obama desperately need. Britain serves as an important political lesson for strategists. After the Labor Party established Britain’s National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party when health care, social welfare, education and pro-working-class policies were enacted by labor-supported governments.
In addition, passing the Employee Free Choice Act to make joining a union easier and to expand the base of union voters who supported Obama by nearly 50 points on Nov. 4 seems only logical. It would also provide a massive boost for working families struggling with stagnant incomes, high health care costs, retirement costs and job insecurity.
The best way to win over the portion of the working class in the South or the West that supported McCain and the Republicans is to create important new public programs and improve the social safety net. National health care, significantly higher minimum wages, support for trade union organizing and aid to education should all be on the agenda. These programs will improve the quality of our lives directly, giving us greater security and establishing the social-economic changes that will bring reluctant voters into the Obama coalition. That is how progress works.
The right-wing propaganda machine will scream “socialism,” and that is also a good thing. Because the more socialism comes to be identified with real policies that raise the standard of living and improve the quality of life for the working class and the whole people, the more socialism will be looked at seriously. A stronger left that follows the tradition of the Communist Party in its unbreakable commitment to a socialist future and to educating people about the value and necessity of socialist policies in the present could follow.
—– Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.