We Have a New President

Election night, Washington, D.C. — After the astonishingly close presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, when it was necessary for most of us to go without sleep for many hours after midnight, tonight’s election has been relatively boring to watch. While the victory of Obama was not declared in the first hour or two, as some had thought possible, by 9:30 P.M. it was clear that McCain was not making a last-minute breakthrough. Obama won New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—all states that any surprise by McCain depended on. Two hours later, the race has not yet been definitely called. But the television networks are projecting that Obama has won Florida, Virginia, Iowa, and New Mexico—all states that George W. Bush had won in 2004. Clearly, although McCain came close to winning these battleground states, he in the end lost them. So what does the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the new president of the United States mean?

I will never forget the moment in January 1961, when John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president. I was watching his inaugural address in the cafeteria of the Harvard Law School, when I was startled by feeling warm tears streak down my cheeks. I was caught by surprise; I had not expected that. Yet it was so astonishing to witness a Roman Catholic becoming the public face of our nation, as presidents always do. It had seemed impossible to imagine, in this very Protestant country. In the Harvard graduate schools, a Catholic felt like a man with green hair—an oddity. But not any more, not after John F. Kennedy became president.

Thus, it is easy for me to imagine the immense jubilation in the hearts of America’s African-American population. Many eyes will be shining with joy tomorrow. Many will feel arise in their breasts a great new sense of pride, accomplishment, and public dignity. They will feel validated as never before.

That is one great blessing of this election.

What will the Obama presidency mean for U.S. foreign policy? A great nation is like a large aircraft carrier. It can change course only very slowly, a degree or two at a time. Thus, I doubt whether President Obama’s overseas actions will match some of his flights of rhetoric during the election.

Obama won the Democratic primaries by getting to the left of Sen. Hillary Clinton and all the others on foreign policy. The most activist part of the Democratic party is its most passionate left wing. Winning their hearts, Obama then gradually moved toward the center—making his views on the war in Iraq barely distinguishable in practical fact from those of Senator McCain. In any case, the foreign-policy issues that dominated the primary season dropped speedily out of sight, as it began to become clear that violence was dropping very quickly in Iraq, and something like “normalcy” came ever closer. The press virtually stopped covering Iraq. (Their passion had been to humiliate Bush; and when things turned better, they seemed no longer interested.)

Does the victory of the Left in 2008 mean that President Obama will try to make the United States more like a Euro-socialist nation? All the signs he has given us of where his heart really lies suggest that he will try to do that, within some rather severe limits. In particular, he will surely try to rush through a program of U.S. government-run and -managed health care. But under President Clinton, Hillary Clinton came to grief trying to do that.

The United States is a large nation, with an extraordinarily diverse range of populations, regions, climates, and cultural habits. Imagine trying to run one single continental health-care system that embraces Germany and Portugal, Scandinavia and Greece, and Albania through Belgium. That image suggests how difficult it will be to run one single health-care system from Washington, from Maine and Florida out through Alaska and Arizona, and everything in between. The United States is more culturally unified than Europe. But it is far from uniformly so.

Besides, Americans do not much respect the government-run programs that are now in place. Rather than rely on the inefficient Post Office, for important matters Americans prefer to pay a little more for the reliability, good manners, and good spirit of private carriers such as FedEx and United Parcel Service. Service is so much better and more cheerful in the business sector than in the government sector.

One thing that President Obama appears to have achieved, however, is to have broken through the near-stalemate of the last 20 years, in which “red” states (Republican) and “blue” states (Democratic) seemed locked in perpetual opposition. Obama broke through and won several important “red” states for the new Democratic majority.

The two parts of his past and his future proposals that I deplore spring from the fact of his being the most extreme proponent of abortion in the U.S. Congress. Given the fact that 35 percent of all abortions in the United States are sought by African-American women, it is surprising that Senator Obama has been such a great defender of the institution of abortion, which since 1973 has taken the lives of more than 43 million infants in the womb. For many of us, abortion is an even more grievous abuse of power over others than slavery, and to argue for “choice” to abort another human being is no more morally plausible than to defend the right to choose to enslave another.

The second worrisome fact about candidate Obama is his promise to appoint left-wing, pro-abortion Supreme Court Justices. He may have as many as three Justices (of the total of nine) to appoint during his four-year term. Their influence would weigh on our nation for 20 or more years to come.

Yet now is not the time to rehearse the grave doubts about Obama that were part of the partisan battle of the last two years. Barack Obama is now the president-elect of all of us. Now is the time to praise the brilliant, audacious, and wonderfully surprising campaign that President-elect Obama conducted. He overcame many obstacles. He held up better under fire than many of us expected him to do. He deserves much praise.

Published in National Review Online November 5, 2008