republicans and obama
The endorsement of Barack Obama by Colin Powell--a rather less momentous event, I think, than some have pretended--provides occasion nonetheless for evaluation of a possible (probable) Obama presidency and the Republican reaction to it. How successful would a President Obama be, and would he manage to reach out beyond his supporters providing the kind of change, political and otherwise, that he claims to seek?
Perhaps the best thing an Obama Presidency would have going for it is his immediate predecessors. Since Clinton was impeached, and Bush has the lowest ratings in history, a leader who simply appeared dignified, competent, and in control would muster an awful lot of good will, from Republicans as well as Democrats. Something like this happened to Reagan: there had been so many failed presidents in a row than the country almost demanded a successful one, and came to forgive errors that might have proved fatal in another era.
The atmosphere of crisis, in financial markets but also regarding the country's general direction, also suggests that Obama (like Franklin Roosevelt) might make headway simply by appearing to be calm and in charge of matters, even without substantive changes.
But there is another, less inspiring parallel named Jimmy Carter. Like Obama, Carter came in with a rather vague, trust me spiel; a strong sense of rectitude; and a promise to get beyond the corruption and incompetence of the Nixon-Ford era. Like Obama, he appeared to be a lot of different things to different people: a liberal, a moderate, a technocrat, even (at first) a kind of religious conservative. Like Obama, Carter had swept aside more established candidates in the Democratic primary, although he nearly blew a 20-point lead in the fall contest (Obama has had a more steady lead).
Which, if either, would Obama resemble? It's hard to say, but my bet--although not necessarily my wish--is that he would face very tough sledding. I based this on three considerations.
First, the country is infinitely more polarized than in the Reagan or Roosevelt eras. Obama would start out with perhaps a third or forty percent of people pretty strongly distrustful of him, so his margin of error--with the public if not the Congress--would be pretty small.
Second, Obama would have the apparent advantage--but also the concomitant danger--of majorities, and probably large ones, in both houses of Congress. The last two times that the Democrats controlled all three branches of Government were 1976, under Carter, and 1992, under Clinton. In both cases they suffered serious reversals within the next two to four years.
Finally, Obama has simply been promising a lot of things that are inconsistent with one another. This is most obviously true with respect to fiscal policy, where he supports the Wall Street bailout plan, has hinted at expanding it to help middle income voters, and wants a tax cut, too. He has also sent mixed signals with respect to foreign policy, where he appears isolationist to some but has also suggested a more vigorous policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other areas. The left is likely to push him very hard on these issues, pointing to the party's recent success, in ways that make a more centrist policy very difficult.
Which brings us back to the Republicans. Given past history, and the likely liberalism of an Obama Administration, the GOP would be strongly tempted to take an oppositional posture that avoided responsibility and sought to blame the Democrats for all possible failures. A version of this approach was indeed used in the Clinton years and brought short-term electoral successes. But the party's base is shrinking, and a purely negative approach could wind up looking more like 1936, when the Democrats carried all but two states, than 1978 or 1994. History is as always an uncertain guide.