There was a perfect storm of factors that led to the Obama election. There was the extraordinary, and paradigm shifting assertion that we can believe in change, the audacity of the chant that "yes we can" organize and fight for the world we have envisioned. There was the profound discipline of the Obama campaign, a group of folk who shrugged off detractors, kept raising money, raising energy, making pragmatic decisions, and steamrolling forward.
There were also missteps from opponents.
On the democratic side, the race evolved into an Obama-Clinton matchup and the Clinton camp stumbled rhetorically and philosophically. For a moment, Bill and Hillary Clinton, who had untarnished credentials in progressive and civil rights circles, strayed from the path of policy improvement, to one of win by whatever means necessary. Obama's Iowa win, combined with Bill Clinton's rhetorical excess around South Carolina, represented seismic shifts in the expected outcome of the Democratic race.
Similarly, Sen. John McCain believed the hype that gender equals feminism and, in selecting Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate, sent mixed signals to women. He attempted to upstage a Democratic ticket that included no women with a Republican ticket that included a woman whose experience and credentials raised questions. Had McCain picked another woman to join him on the ticket, Democrats might be analyzing the election from the losers' seat.
Many are still in awe at the Obama victory, prepared to celebrate our historic moment and bask in the glow of possibility. We should not be fooled, however, by the Electoral College landslide. The popular vote was much closer than the electoral vote – with 52 percent of voters choosing Barack Obama and 46 percent choosing John McCain.
This is relevant because 46 percent is nearly half, and this segment of disgruntled voters are not silent, but expressive in their loss. They have manufactured a birth certificate crisis (and have interestingly gotten the support of Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the matter), attempted to implicate President-elect Obama in an Illinois gubernatorial corruption scandal, and flooded the conservative airwaves with nonsense.
These attitudes may poison an atmosphere that is mostly swelling with hope and possibility. The bottom line is that the Obama administration has a scant two years in which to make a case that they have moved our nation forward. The 2010 election, which will decide the fate of the Congress and the Senate, will be a referendum on the progress the Obama administration has made. President-elect Obama is intelligent enough to avoid the Clinton pitfall of losing control of the congress and senate in a mid-term election.
Yet, the public sets a high performance bar on a new president and will perhaps forget that he has inherited an economy broken by a set of misguided decisions by the previous administration. Even as we look forward to this administration's challenges, we have to look presently at the ways that people who call themselves activists are prepared to engage in the formulation of progressive public policy. Too many are stuck in the process of basking in victory, ignoring the fact that the historic election was but one step toward the goal of social and economic justice. The last time I checked out change.gov there were lots of position papers submitted, but few by African American policy leaders, or by progressive activists.
Some of these folks are assuming that Barrack Obama will know what progressives want. They should be reminded that, as the campaign progressed, Obama ran as a centrist. They should also be reminded that no matter what Obama "knows," government is the process of negotiation, and those who surround Obama may not know the same things that he does. Many are basking in the result of a perfect storm — a time when race, class, gender, generation and culture collided to produce a desired result. The storm will not be perfect if the desired result – the Obama election – does not also produce the societal change that so many are clamoring for.
We must jump start the economy by creating more jobs. We must provide more access to education. We must have an international economy that speaks to global economic justice. We must deal create a world that honors the environment. We will not do any of these things if activists are silent, if people who have expertise and interests go into a corner and clamor over the right to celebrate as opposed to the need for change.
The Obama win opens the door for change. Activism helps shape an agenda that makes change a real possibility.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.