Faculty Explains Obama’s Impact
By KAT SAUNDERS
On November 4th, Barack Obama defeated John McCain and was elected the 44th president of the United States.
The popular vote was close, but Obama won by more than two to one in the Electoral College, with a final tally of 349 votes for Obama and 147 for McCain votes. 270 votes were needed to win.
In Virginia, Obama won by a narrow margin of 155,862 votes, the first time a Democratic nominee has carried the Virginia vote in over 40 years.
At midnight, Obama took the stage in Grant Park in his hometown of Chicago to give a victory speech, where he called on Americans to continue his message of change.
“That’s the true genius of America: that America can change,” he told a crowd of 125,000 supporters. “America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.”
Obama will be taking office on the heels of what many consider an economic crisis.
Obama has indicated that the economy will be his first priority upon taking office in January of next year. Plans on his website include eliminating taxes for senior citizens with annual incomes less than $50,000, repealing income tax cuts for those making over $250,000 and lifting the income gap on Social Security taxes.
The economy was one of the deciding factors for many in the election. Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology John Cross said prior to the collapse of the housing market and major drops in the stock market, a strong economy was one of the driving forces behind Sen. John McCain’s campaign.
“After the economic collapse, McCain supporters were talking to [Democratic campaigners]” Cross said. “There was an opening there. I would say it was tangible. You could feel it when you were out there talking to people.”
Political Science Assistant Professor Rosalyn Cooperman suggested that the current budget deficit could pose a problem for Obama.
“I think President-elect Obama will face significant challenges in getting some of his campaign promises, such as health care reform, enacted into law because of the fact that we presently have a record budget deficit which makes it so much more difficult to fund all of the good ideas candidates champion on the campaign trail.” she said. “The money is just not going to be there to pay for a lot of big ticket policy items and Democrats should be reluctant to add to the already staggering budget deficit to pay for policies.”
Democrats in both the Senate and the House made gains, giving Congress a larger Democratic majority: 51-49 in the Senate and 235-199 with one vacancy in the House.
Although having the same party in control of the executive and legislative branches is considered an advantage for presidents, it is not guaranteed that Congress will support all of Obama’s policies.
According to political science professor Emile Lester, there is still some divide between Democrats in Congress.
“There are differences on cultural issues, and the Southern Democrats may be more conservative,” he said.
Both Cooperman and Cross pointed to President Bill Clinton’s failure to utilize his party advantage after his election in 1996. Obama’s first 100 days in office, often called the presidential “honeymoon period,” will be crucial in determining how successful he will be in having legislation passed.
“Presidents always try to use the honeymoon period to their advantage to make progress on their legislative goals and get Congress to pass items popular with the American public,” Cooperman said.
“Some do a better job than others in taking advantage of the honeymoon period.”
However, economic and foreign policy problems, including the war in Iraq, could also help Obama win bipartisan support.
“I think there’s a widespread agreement between Democrats and Republicans that there are massive problems that need to be dealt with,” Cross said. “My assumption would be that [Obama] will be given an opportunity to make large changes in economic policy.”
Turnout for the election was high for the United States and the highest it has been since 1908. National turnout of the voting age population was 64 percent, nine percent higher than turn out for the 2004 elections. In Virginia, 70 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls.
“Mobilization efforts were phenomenal, and I think that Obama had an appeal to youth voters that interacted with that,” said Associate Professer of Sociology Kristin Marsh “There’s a real demoralized sense in the country, and I have to say that I think the Obama campaign really made sure that anybody who had any inkling to get to the polls was going to get there.”
Turnout for young and minority voters, core Obama supporters, was particularly high.
“Obama wasn’t holding anything back. He was making sure people were out there,” Cross said. “People want to be engaged. If you have a leader who can galvanize that, then you’re going to have a powerful person.”
Obama, an African American, is the first non-white elected to the country’s highest office. He emphasized diversity as an important part of democracy during his campaigning.
Lester cited the example of his wife, who was born in China and came to the U.S as child, as one of the many citizens inspired by Obama’s victory
“It seemed like the feeling my wife got was one of inclusion. She felt a little bit more included in America. She felt a little bit more like a full citizen,” he said. “I would imagine a number of folks would share that feeling.”
Marsh said that the implications of Obama’s election are large, but could be overstated.
“Certainly it’s a huge step in the right direction, certainly it means we have come a long way, but the danger is assuming that it means race doesn’t matter,” she said.
Obama’s inauguration will be January 20th of next year, but the decisions he begins making in the next 76 days will have an influence on the start of his presidency.
“From what I’m hearing, it sounds like Obama is going to be really careful about who he puts on his team,” Marsh said.
Cross said Obama has the potential for an influential presidency if he manages to obtain bipartisan support and continues to keep citizens as engaged as he has during his campaign.
“We’ve got a world community that is eager to work with Barack Obama as the president,” he said. “Obama has the ability to reach out and bring people in, and I think that’s going to be crucial.”