Maybe, for just a moment last night, like when the early returns from Virginia put Mitt Romney well ahead of President Obama, I wondered whether we’d have a new White House occupant.
Then fresher election results from Virginia, and from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, and finally Florida showed Obama earned a clear victory.
The president’s supporters, very plainly, are thrilled, as they should be. But there is no glee for the president. He knows what he faces in the swift currents of economic, diplomatic, and environmental transition threatening to ruin the country. And in the determined work of the deranged and delusional right to stop the nation’s progress and seize power.
In his victory speech — delivered well after midnight and Lincolnesque in its gravity, poetry, and healing spirit — Obama recognized many of the risks to the United States, and yet again reached out to his embittered opposition for the sake of the country.
“This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared — that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.”
I woke this morning fully anticipating the sound of splashing ideological poison in the studios of the cable news shows. Right on cue Republican leadership responded to Obama’s appeal with ugliness and contempt. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially said there would be no change in their strategy of obstruction. In a typical remark from a Republican pundit, Mary Matalin scowled on CNN and hissed that the only mandate Obama earned was “free contraception and taxing the rich.”
My second thought was what are we, the citizens of the United States, going to do about it? Because, friends, this ain’t play time. There are two ways to look at this moment.
The optimist in me says the United States, as it’s done for more than two centuries, will seize the century’s market opportunities and develop new products, business practices, and intellectual capital. This, afterall, is how we developed industries powered by steam, cities linked by trains and then highways and cars, and the digital sectors that are now the world’s largest marketplaces.
It takes courageous investment, really smart strategies, and persistent pursuit of big steps over time to build the new economy of this century. In some places, like many of the nation’s cities, leaders threw aside the immature nonsense, and residents took up the financial burden and made investments in transit, environment, education, entertainment, housing, and health. The economies of the biggest cities, and many of the smaller ones, too, are thriving.
The pessimist in me says because we’ve been unable to reach the same sort of agreement at the federal and state levels in 20 years, we’re in even deeper trouble than we are ready to acknowledge. The economic and resource bills for our distinctly American way of life are well past due.
The climate emissions we poured into the atmosphere are striking us back with coastal hurricanes, deepening droughts, tornadoes, floods, and all manner of strange weather that are national body blows. Our highways and rail networks, airports, and waterways are old, expensive to build, and draining treasuries and competitiveness.
Our schools aren’t performing well enough to educate young people, many of whom are so discouraged about their prospects they choose not to learn, not to strive, not to compete. Incomes are falling along with home values while prices for energy and grain, fueled by rising demand globally, head up at a steeper direction. Our state and national executive and legislative branches act as marketing departments to the highest bidders.
All of this, and more, is being shaped by history, circumstance, our eagerness to change the subject, and substandard state and federal management (I refrain from calling it leadership). We are desperately close to locking ourselves into a dangerous new American era — what my friend James Kunstler calls “the long emergency.”
At some level most Americans instinctively know we’re in trouble. Last night they re-elected a man who just over half the country believes has the intelligence to produce a political breakthrough that shifts momentum away from ruin and towards renewal.
Obama needs more than that. He needs us, the American people, to insist through public demonstration, tweets, ads, videos, song, whatever, to have his back. We can’t let good ideas about commanding the future be savaged by hate.
We have, as Obama said last night, a stronger community of values that start with ourselves:
“As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.”
— Keith Schneider