An Open Letter to the Obama Administration
December 2008 Issue
by Jay Gentile
Oprah was there. So was Jesse Jackson, Chicago INNERVIEW, and about 200,000 beaming souls who packed into Grant Park to watch President-elect Barack Obama’s victory speech on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 4, about an hour after the Illinois senator had been declared the 44th President of the United States. Unlike the last two presidential elections, there was no doubt about this one — with Obama winning a decisive victory in the electoral college by a margin of 365 votes to John McCain’s 173. In the popular vote, Obama attracted a record 67 million votes to McCain’s 58 million, besting his Republican rival by a margin of 53 to 46 percent. But one look into the lit-up faces of that extraordinary crowd assembled in Grant Park that night told you all you needed to know about this election: people were excited about America again.
In the Senate, Democrats picked up seven seats to increase their majority from 51-49 to 58-40, with the remaining two Senate races in Minnesota and Georgia still undecided as of mid-November. A recount is currently underway in Minnesota, with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman clinging to a 215 vote lead over Democratic challenger Al Franken, while the Georgia Senate race is set for a rematch on Dec. 2 because neither candidate secured more than 50 percent of the vote. In the House, Democrats picked up 20 seats to increase their majority there to 255 Democrats versus 175 Republicans, with three races still too close to call as of mid-November. (The remaining two House races are in Louisiana and will be decided on Dec. 6 after they were postponed due to the hurricane season.) For the first time since 1992, Democrats will be in control of both chambers of Congress as well as the White House when the new government is sworn in on January 20.
Overall, the outcome of the 2008 presidential election bears extremely strong similarities to the 1992 general election, in which the last President Bush was defeated and Bill Clinton rode to the White House with 370 electoral votes versus George H.W. Bush’s 168. In fact, the 1992 electoral map looks nearly identical to the 2008 map with the only real difference being in the South — where Clinton won more smaller states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia while Obama won fewer but more vote-rich Southern states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Clinton also came into office with 56 Democrats in the Senate and 267 in the House, margins very similar to the incoming 2009 congressional makeup. The biggest difference lies in the popular vote, where Clinton won only 43% of the vote due to the third-party candidacy of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who grabbed 19% of the total vote share.
What does all this mean? It means that Obama, unlike George W. Bush or even Clinton in 1992, has a mandate to govern. He is in a much stronger position than Bush in 2000 and even in 2004, when Bush claimed a mandate despite only winning by 35 electoral votes and two percent of the popular vote. Yet even with the largest Democratic presidential vote share since 1964, this was not a landslide — and Obama’s mandate has more to do with his personality and general call for change than any specific policies put forth by the candidate or his party. This election was won in the middle, and is less a victory for liberal policies than it is for common sense. “This is a mandate to get along, to get something done in a bipartisan way,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after the election. “This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology.” Bill Clinton started his presidency by taking on the unnecessarily divisive topic of gays in the military and an overly partisan approach to reforming health care, which set the tone for the partisan gridlock that persisted throughout his administration. This ideological overreach also helped Republicans take back control of the House and Senate in 1994, which they retained for the remainder of his presidency and used against him to block many of his more ambitious proposals.
Since we know the president-elect is a fan of Chicago INNERVIEW, we offer him some words of advice: govern from the center. While it’s clear to almost everyone that this is the approach he is intent on, if you listen to the syncophants over at Fox News you might think Obama is planning to appoint Bill Ayers to the cabinet and Jeremiah Wright to run the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the end, all of Sean Hannity’s hysterical hand wringing over Obama’s “radical associations” and the oft-cited National Journal characterization of Obama as “the most liberal member of the United States Senate” meant nothing. Obama is shaping up to be a centrist, pragmatic problem-solver who favors solutions over ideology. He seems well-equipped to carry on President Clinton’s more centrist “New Democrat” legacy that he was able to establish later in his presidency — which helped his party work across the aisle while also making the party more palatable to the voting public of this largely center-right country.
President Obama would be wise to avoid unnecessarily partisan fights such as the backing of special interests like unions on the looming issue of card check and stick to the big picture. Helping him to do so will be his newly-named chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, whom Chicago INNERVIEW is also familiar with from having covered his successful 2002 House race in Illinois’ 5th Congressional District, which spans much of the city’s North Side. We found “Rahmbo” to be as tough, smart and funny as his reputation would indicate, although since that time the former ballerina has become much more adept at working with Republicans on the Hill in a more bipartisan manner. As a former top fundraiser for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Emanuel also helped engineer the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 — and did so largely by running centrist Democrats in conservative districts throughout the country. As a result, the current Democratic majority is much more heavily grounded in moderate policies rather than divisive left-wing agendas — which should serve the new administration and the party well moving forward.
Yet as of mid-November, the new Obama cabinet was looking extraordinarily similar to that of President Clinton with, in addition to Emanuel, the names of many Clinton Administration veterans being cited for top cabinet posts. Eric Holder, who was deputy attorney general under Clinton, was named as Obama’s choice for attorney general. (If confirmed by the Senate, as seems likely, Holder would be the first African-American to lead the Justice Department.) Greg Craig, who defended Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, was named as Obama’s choice for White House counsel. Ronald Klain, Al Gore’s former chief of staff whose role in the 2000 recount was played by Kevin Spacey in the HBO film Recount, was named as Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta is heading up Obama’s transition team and two prominent names cited for treasury secretary, Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, are former Clinton Administration officials as well. This, combined with Hillary Clinton’s likely nomination as Obama’s secretary of state, creates the impression of an Obama cabinet being colonized by Clintonistas.
There are a few problems with this argument. First, with only one Democratic administration over the last 28 years, “there are not many Democrats who have actually been there, done that,” as former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry has said. Secondly, Obama is clearly looking for people who are, above all things, qualified — a welcome change of pace from the ideologues and unqualified Texas cronies like “heckuva job Brownie” that Bush stacked his cabinet with. We would like to see more Chicagoans selected for cabinet posts (like David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, who have already joined the new administration as senior advisors) and we also hope to see Obama’s underrated campaign manager David Plouffe and campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs join the new administration as well. In the end, we trust that Obama knows what he’s doing — and we, along with most of the country and the world — wish him well. January 20 just can’t seem to get here fast enough.
CI Political File #011