The antique clockwork of the much-maligned Electoral College had clicked into place right on schedule, worked its magic, and, within hours after the polls closed Tuesday, the country had a president-elect. Congratulations, sir. Congratulations, America.
The great, overlong and overheated hullabaloo of the campaign was over, and you could almost hear the anticipatory strains of Hail to the Chief emerge. It is time once again to enter the next room of the dream.
The spotlight now will be on the incoming administration as an old and unpopular one slinks away, its major and almost only task now to smooth the way for the new. It's a tradition that goes back to gruff old John Adams' catching a coach back to Quincy after making a few midnight appointments (like John Marshall to the Supreme Court) that would outlast both him and his brilliant slaveholding successor. Wouldn't you like to hear Mr. Jefferson's response, or just see the reaction on his face, to the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the highest office and greatest trust in the Republic? America never ceases to amaze and assure.
It is time once again to change the cast, costumes and all the outward show of our political stagecraft even if the American drama remains remarkably the same, thank goodness. Right down to, please God, the happy ending.
Few if any in the audience will be thinking about the intricate beauties of the Electoral College now that the curtain is about to rise on the next act. Instead, the usual critics in the galleries will be speculating on the rustling behind the curtain and what it portends. And there is much to speculate about, for the still young matinee idol in the lead role will be among the least known of presidents-elect in our time.
But this much we do know: Barack Obama's first accomplishment, even before taking the oath of office, has been to eliminate the rhetoric deficit that has plagued the country for years now as his graceful and gracious speech election night demonstrated once again. This eloquent young man rang the mystic chords of memory even while promising to take the country on a new course, however wrapped in fog it may be for now. What a relief it will be to again have president who speaks English.
Soon enough it will be time to fill in the now blank outline that will be the Obama administration. That administration will take shape for good or ill in a thousand ways over the next thousand days.
Barack Obama would not be the first president to enter the Oval Office scarcely known. Franklin D. Roosevelt, lest we forget, was elected on the heels of a deeply unpopular Herbert Hoover, whom he'd accused of running wild deficits and fostering "socialism." During his campaign, FDR had proposed a balanced budget as the remedy for what ailed the nation. We all know how that turned out. Once in office, he followed a policy of bold experimentation, trying one thing after another till he found a few that worked. The historical revisionists we will always have with us, but on balance I'd say he gave the nation another happy ending.
How will this administration do? The central theme of democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote in his book by that name, is the constant pull between liberty and equality. Barack Obama will be the next president to strike his own balance between them. Too far in one direction or the other and the center will not hold.
Surely the Sen. Obama who pandered to all those ideological and economic interests on issue after issue on his way to his triumph at the polls will give way to a President Obama who's serious about uniting the country. At this celebratory moment, the only thing we have to fear from the next president is sincerity. Happily, that is not a quality common among politicians.
The keynote of Barack Obama's successful campaign has been the bumper-sticker word, HOPE. As for me, I live for the day when bumper stickers proclaim: PRUDENCE. Or even better, TRADITION. Or, best of all, when car bumpers proclaim nothing at all. And Americans get back to what truly makes a difference in a society: the tending of our own private lives, businesses and professions, friends and families, enthusiasms and eccentricities, inventions and innovations and investments, churches and communities and schools, and all those deep satisfactions that government is established to foster and protect, not undermine.
Surely the next president of the United States will let us get on with all that in a free country, and, for all his campaign rhetoric, not stick with the foolish consistency that, in Emerson's phrase, "is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen...." Greatness in some presidents may be measured by how far they rise above their campaign promises.