In the hours and days after Barack Obama's presidential victory, for every Republican shouting that the sky was falling, there were more Democrats declaring the sky was the limit. Symbolically, Democrats are not wrong.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, his victory was in part the rejection of the unpopular Jimmy Carter, but also the embrace of arguably the most popular president of the latter half of the 20th century. Reagan's eloquence, sincerity, and charisma were second to none, and while conservative Republicans loved his politics as much as the man — most Americans simply loved the man. Reagan's personality transcended politics, and to this day he remains conservative Republicans' greatest popular symbol.
Now liberal Democrats have their Reagan. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democratic figure energized his party to such a degree. No doubt, Democrats favored Obama's policies over the Republicans, but for most supporters, their choice for president was primarily a matter of the heart. The reaction on election night proved as much and Obama's superb speech further fueled their emotions. John Kerry and even the charismatic Bill Clinton never received such a reaction, precisely because they never possessed Obama's Reaganesque aura.
But to quote H.L. Mencken, "Let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense." As a Reagan admirer, when I point out to my conservative friends that in terms of federal spending and exploding deficits, the 40th president's limited government rhetoric didn't always match reality, they are offended that I would dare question the Republican messiah. Likewise, conservatives can take solace in the fact that the right-wing nightmares and left-wing dreams induced by the new Democratic messiah won't amount to much either.
In fact, there isn't much to indicate that the second black president will govern much differently from the first. Americans were mostly happy during the Bill Clinton administration, whose reign was remarkably similar to that of George H.W. Bush. Both launched a few minor wars, spent like drunken sailors, and conducted business as usual on most fronts. Americans considered the first Bush a disappointment after Reagan, and yet in electing Clinton, policy really didn't substantially change. Clinton's personality is what endeared him to the American people, even more so with Reagan and now the same with Obama.
If Obama once rubbed shoulders with men like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers for political opportunity in Chicago, one can expect the 44th president to now do the same with moderate Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. for the same reason. As of this writing, Wright and Ayers have not been considered for any cabinet positions but former Clinton officials John Podesta, Carol Browner, and William Daley have. So have Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Powell, and Chuck Hagel. Throughout the election, it amazed me that Republicans weren't the least bit concerned about the very real possibility that John McCain might have appointed a flaming liberal like his good buddy Joe Lieberman as Secretary of State. Obama is arguably more likely to make centrist appointments, in an effort to appear moderate, than McCain would have, whose Republican label would have allowed him to get away with anything. Could Obama's agenda be any scarier than McCain's collaborations with Democrats Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and Russ Feingold?
The only candidates who truly represented any substantive policy "change" in Washington, D.C. this election year were Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Dennis Kucinich, whose respective parties found each man's politics too extreme and their personalities too lacking. But if you supported Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or Bill Richardson — or Republicans Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, or John McCain — you likely have nothing to fear from an Obama presidency.
In fact, both at home and overseas, America's status and current situation will likely improve. Not because Obama is so wonderful — but because George W. Bush was so bad. If Obama even halfway keeps his commitments to bring the troops home (a now questionable prospect given his election rhetoric) he will have immediately reduced federal spending (Bush Republicans still justify massive spending as necessary to fight the "war on terror") and will likely have reduced the terrorist threat by taking away Al-Qaeda's greatest recruiting tool — U.S. military presence on Arab land. Compared to Bush, both will be viewed as drastic improvements.
Yet like Reagan, despite how much or little Obama's policies eventually match his rhetoric, the icon has already overwhelmed the outcome. I can even envision future Democratic presidential candidates promising to be "another Obama" in much the same way Republicans seek to emulate Reagan. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh used to complain about liberals' valuing "style over substance," forgetting that Reagan's popularity was in large part due to his personality, which made him the GOP's cause-celeb long before he made a single executive decision.
Now for Democrats, Barack Obama may or may not prove his substance — but his style has already guaranteed his status as his party's greatest symbol.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.