On November 13, 2008, the Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy, in conjunction with the Boston University Washington Center and Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, Inc., hosted several expert panelists to discuss the presidential election of 2008 and issues facing the new administration. They addressed key aspects of President-elect Barack Obama's successful campaign and the domestic and international challenges that he will encounter when he takes office.
Linda Killian, Director of the Boston University Washington Center and Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion of panelists, which included Larry Rasky, Chairman of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications and the Communications Director for the Biden for President '08 Campaign; Jeff Zeleny, a political reporter for The New York Times; Kevin Merida, the Associate Editor of The Washington Post and a former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar; and Brad Todd, a Republican media strategist and a founding partner of OnMessage Inc.
The 2008 Presidential Campaign
Zeleny began the discussion by pointing out key elements of President-elect Obama's campaign that resulted in his election to office. He explained that the first half of the election cycle was more important than the second. Obama and his advisors focused their attention on smaller states during the primaries and maintained a consistent strategy in states like Iowa, even when Senator Clinton had the lead. Merida added that, because Obama won several small states early, Senator Clinton was unable to catch up later in the primary process. The panelists agreed that the momentum moved gradually in Obama's favor, leading to his nomination and to his eventual win in the general election.
Moreover, Merida explained, the Obama Campaign effectively created an organic movement of supporters. It mastered 21st century technology, utilizing social networking sites like facebook.com and mybarackobama.com. Obama tapped into the resource of large numbers of local volunteers to run campaign offices and "defied conventional wisdom about who you needed to run campaigns." By bringing these new populations into campaigning and organizing, Obama has created possibilities for future democratic supporters in states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado.
Rasky built upon this dialogue, describing the coalition of supporters that Obama was able to mobilize. According to Rasky, Obama reached out to a "huge group of disenfranchised Americans...[and] little by little, Barack Obama became the voice for their hopes and aspirations." In his view, "that's the force that delivered him to the presidency" and raised expectations for what he will do in office.
Where is the Republican Party Headed?
The discussion moved from Obama's campaign to the future of the two political parties and, more specifically, how the Republican Party might refine its future strategy. Todd noted that about 70 percent of those polled during this election cycle said that the Republican Party has changed from what it was in 1994. He added that, in this election, voters polled gave Obama the lead over Senator McCain in each of the following issues: managing spending, cutting taxes, developing a responsible energy program, and responding to the economic crisis. Only in one area – terror and national security – did McCain come out on top. Todd explained the historical importance of tax and energy policies for the GOP and asserted that Republicans "simply need to be Republicans again." He added that Obama's governance and degree of success will determine if the map changes and show whether this is truly a realigning election. According to Todd, many of those that voted for Obama still lean Republican, but the GOP will need to work hard to get those votes back.
The Obama Administration and Its Response to Supporters
Linda Killian directed the conversation towards the challenges that President-elect Obama will face, the first being his response to both his new supporters and the more moderate democratic coalition. Zeleny explained that congressional democrats are already thinking about the midterm 2010 elections, so attending to the needs of moderates and aligning the democratic base in these first two years is a top priority. How the administration deals with the Hill will be very important, both in terms of reelection and in creating change. Merida added that high expectations of Obama could either be utilized for pushing new policies forward, or could be overwhelming and prove to be a detriment. He also emphasized that new politics and bipartisanship are now part of Obama's core message and that the population, and especially Democrats, will be watching closely to see how he acts in office.
The Potential for Change
According to Killian, 64 percent of those polled believe that Obama can bring about real change. Rasky explained that "this is a transformational moment in time," and, as Congress looks to Obama for a new policy direction, "it will be the boldness of his vision that determines" how much change can actually occur.
A key challenge the administration will face in moving the country forward, Rasky said, will be setting guiding principles from which to create policy. Todd added that the new administration should be careful not to be too ideological. In a "still center-right country," one of Obama's main appeals to voters during the campaign was his "post-partisan" image.
The Economic Crisis and American Sacrifice
The discussion moved to the current economic crisis and the challenges the Obama administration will face when prioritizing campaign ideas and promises. Zeleny asserted that Obama outlined ambitious goals and that, at some point, the administration will have to articulate that they cannot accomplish it all. Zeleny reiterated a point by new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – it will be the burden of this administration to seize the economic downturn as an opportunity to push for change. Merida agreed, noting that this is a rare moment, with both political backing and public support for a massive transformation.
Further, Merida stated that a key issue during the crisis will be how much the American public will be asked to make sacrifices for their country. Todd explained that, in times crisis, such as in the immediate post-9/11 period, there is a rare opportunity to ask for sacrifice, but politicians generally find it difficult to do. The question now becomes whether or not the Obama administration will be willing to tell the people what they need to sacrifice.
In this difficult time, Rasky noted, the administration will have to do a lot very quickly.
Connecting to the American People on the Campaign Trail and in the White House
In a final session, panelists discussed the ways that Obama has changed the campaign process and the involvement of the American people in political affairs. Killian questioned how this process will be carried into the White House.
Zeleny asserted that Obama will have a more open White House, accepting fewer interviews with the media than any other presidential candidate, but instead communicating with the American people in more direct ways. Merida pointed out the important and influential role that Obama's website played throughout his campaign, a tool that the administration will try to adapt to the White House.
With record levels of participation in this election, Rasky questioned how successful the administration will be in moving beyond simple transparency to participatory democracy. The people will need to feel that they are part of the governing and policymaking process.
Killian brought the discussion to a close and asked the panelists to make final comments. Zeleny noted that Obama's first foreign trip will be interesting to watch, in light of the warm reception he received during his foreign tour in July. Merida emphasized that, to many, the election is a "rebirth of the country." Rasky added his own excitement at seeing a very different political moment in the country, as the relationship between the public, especially young people, and the president has changed. Todd noted that "Americans are more engaged than they ever have been," which, in his opinion, is a victory for all, regardless of profession or political persuasion.
Drafted by Timothy Valley, STAGE Program
Kent Hughes, Director, STAGE Program