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11.26.08

Irrational Obama Exuberance

For the first time in a long time, Americans are happy about their political leaders. Three reasons why Obamania isn’t just completely ridiculous.

For the first time in a long time, Americans are happy about their political leaders. Three reasons why Obamania isn’t just completely ridiculous. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

It's bizarro world in America post-election—we feel hopeful about our politics and fearful about the markets.

It's the opposite of what we've come accustomed to in recent years, times when if the economy's grooving than all other factors fade away—even war itself—or as it was ten years ago, when the internet bubble happily distracted us from the Monica-mess.

But right now we're enjoying a bit of bliss after a 22-month build-up, and President-elect Obama is basking in approval ratings well ahead of his final vote-total. A November 25 Gallup poll showed that "between 63 percent and 67 percent of Americans have, in the weeks since Election Day, said they are confident in Barack Obama's ability to be a good president." His wisely centrist Cabinet picks have led to that broader confidence. Apparently even some McCain supporters are now thinking this historic turn of the page and change of pace might be what the nation needs to revive and re-center itself.

Obama presented himself as an American individual first, not, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, "a hyphenated American."

The closest parallel is JFK, who won an even tighter race than BHO, and then rocketed to nearly 70 percent approval ratings as a telegenic young family entered the White House, riding an invigorating wave of ethnic and generational change. Then came the Bay of Pigs.

This Camelot moment won't last either. There will be mistakes, scandals, and missteps. But if you're feeling a dash of irrational exuberance you're not alone—and there are in fact real reasons to feel renewed optimism about the USA at the dawn of the age of Obama.

A Meritocracy Again: Quick anecdote: Walking across New York's Central Park in the summer of 2000, I passed a guy apparently fresh from the Philadelphia Republican convention, wearing a t-shirt which read, "I believe in the American Dream—George W. Bush for President." It was not a joke.

The election of George W. Bush was a lot of things, but it was not a triumph of the American Dream. It was a regression, the triumph of a latent aristocratic gene that resides in the heart of humanity when democracies get lazy. But the Prince Hal stuff doesn't sit well with Americans—when the former boss's son gets the top job in our democracy it starts to erode the ennobling idea of American exceptionalism itself. And the rise of the Obama phenomenon—especially as alternative to the restoration of the House of Clinton—has revived the reputation of America as a meritocracy.

We elected not just the first black man, but the son of an African immigrant, raised by his grandparents in a lower-middle class home, so devoid of establishment pull that he couldn't even get a ticket to his own party's convention eight years before he accepted its nomination. By electing the anti-Bush—inspirational, articulate and unconnected—we restored the age-old empowering idea that anyone can become president if they work hard, and posses the right combination of intelligence, integrity, guts and guile. And that's good for America.

No President of Black America: The election of Obama as an evolutionary step past America's original sin of slavery cannot be overstated. But the most beautiful thing about it was the way went largely un-remarked by the candidate or his campaign.

It was, in this respect, a quiet American revolution: Obama presented himself as an American individual first, not, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, "a hyphenated American." And he was rewarded by the American people in part for this transcendence of the racial politics of our recent past.

A feature of our political life for the past three-decades has been the African American protest presidential candidacy—first and semi-credibly Jesse Jackson, and then far less so, Al Sharpton. (We'll leave Shirley Chisholm, Alan Keyes and Carol Moseley-Braun out of this). The point of these campaigns was less to win the presidency than to own a title that has been up for grabs since the assassination of Dr. King—the president of black America. That post will now be vacated forever, not because we've reached the end of racism in our nation, but because we have a black president of all America.

The Low Road didn't lead to the White House: In his stump speeches before Iowa, Obama promised to lead a "party that doesn't just focus on how to win but why we should." He was campaigning against the hyper-partisan politics of personal destruction that has dominated Washington for too long. What's more remarkable and gratifying is that he kept his word.

Cynical political consultants love to point out that while Americans always say they want less negative campaigning, it works. The end, in their eyes, justifies the means. That's how hardball is played. And even honorable politicians can fall into this trap—when George H. W. Bush listened to Lee Atwater, the Willie Horton ad was deployed. The message: You have to be willing to campaign dirty in order to have the opportunity to govern clean.

But Obama kept his own counsel and elevated the game. Faced with a bewildering array of low-blow attacks, first from the Hillary Clinton campaign and then McCain-Palin, Obama kept his cool. He was called a socialist who palled around with terrorists; hysterical whisper campaigns alleged that he was a Muslim Marxist Manchurian candidate, even the anti-Christ, while official opposition ads at times were almost uniformly negative.

Faced with outright fear-mongering, Obama did not respond in kind. He realized that taking the bait would create a moral equivalence while allowing opponents to play the victim card. Instead, in a bit of political judo, he made the attacks the issue, a desperate sign of the politics of the past. He was called weak by some for not firing back, but he understood that we actually do want honor restored to our politics. Obama gambled on the common sense and the common decency of the American people, and he won.

So there are reasons for the afterglow after this historic election. Enjoy it. The Washington sausage-making process will commence soon enough. But by appealing to the better angels of our nature, as opposed to betting on the success of partisan politics as usual, President-elect Obama has uplifted our national image and updated the American Dream. That's what we call a new birth of freedom. And that's reason to give thanks.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as Director of Speechwriting and Deputy Director of Policy for Rudy Giuliani's Presidential Campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He worked on Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign.