Commentary Magazine


The President-Elect

For conservatives, there are certainly reasons to be concerned  now that Barack Obama has been elected America’s 44th President, from his liberal ideology to the composition of the 111th Congress. There will be plenty of time to engage those differences down the road.

At this moment, though, it’s worth recognizing what a remarkable achievement Obama’s election is. A man who, less than five years ago, was an unknown state senator from Illinois went on to win the Democratic nomination by defeating the overwhelming favorite, Hillary Clinton, and the vaunted Clinton machine.

Senator Obama went on to run a remarkable general election campaign. He made astonishingly few errors along the way, particularly for a man so new to national politics. And it is undeniable that the more the public saw of Obama, the more reassured they were by him. He also put in place a political organization that was exceptionally well-run, disciplined, cohesive, and tactically and strategically impressive.

It was clear some time ago that he was a formidable and talented figure; only a few understood just how formidable and talented he turned out to be.

Beyond that is the fact that America, almost a century and a half after Lincoln freed the slaves, has elected as its president a black man. For a nation whose original sin was slavery and which has grappled with race for much of its history, there is something important, moving, and even redemptive about it.

In that sense at least, this election is one all Americans can take pride in.

There may be a temptation among some Republicans to eventually lash out at Obama. That impulse ought to be resisted. Obama’s fate is now tied to the fortunes of our country; we should hope he governs well and with wisdom. It is really fairly simple: there are moments in the life of a free nation when we need to sheath our political swords and recall the bonds of affection that tie citizen to citizen.

One of the things that troubled me most during my time in the White House was that among some of the President’s critics, their hatred of him was so strong and ran so deep that one sensed they hoped the country would fail in the hope that Bush would as well. This was particularly true when it came to the Iraq war and the surge, when some Democrats seemed to be rooting for failure in “Bush’s war.” We heard calls for reclaiming “my America.” It was all quite discouraging and dispiriting; one can only hope that Republicans don’t engage in the same thing, regardless of our intense feelings about Barack Obama.

That doesn’t mean that Obama and his administration should be immune from criticism. Republicans have an obligation to be the Loyal Opposition, to make our case and state our objections in a way that is specific, spirited, tough-minded, and thoroughgoing. But there is a line that separates a principled voice of opposition from an angry, brittle, and graceless one. There is no magic formula here; what we are talking about has to do with tone and temperament, a disposition of heart and mind, and the spirit that animates us.

In any event, right now Obama and the Democratic Congress own the stage; they have earned that right in a sweeping electoral win. To strike out against them with clenched teeth and a mailed fist would only further damage the Republican “brand.” We cannot be seen as being a party or a movement defined by resentments and surliness.

I would much rather have Republicans responsible for governing than critiquing those who do. But we are where we are, and we may as well make our wilderness years constructive ones. Now is the time for Republicans to focus on what we need to do to make our party more principled and reform-minded, to develop an agenda that meets the challenges of our time. It may be that Obama and the Democrats, intoxicated in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, overreach. In a nation that remains center-right, that would be an enormous mistake. And if they do, the public will once again look to Republicans. Our duty is to be ready, to demonstrate intellectual vitality and a deep, unbroken commitment to the public interest. That is the way to win back public confidence and, eventually, their votes. But for now, the spotlight is, and for some time to come will be, on the young man who last night authored an amazing new chapter in American politics.

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