Barack Obama will enter the White House with the kind of lofty expectations not seen in the United States since 1980, when Ronald Reagan promised to return “morning’’ to America (his electoral victory – 365 electors and counting – is also one not seen since Bill Clinton won 370 and 379 electors in his 1992 and 1996 races, respectively, but won 50 percent or more of the popular vote neither time.)
A Gallup poll taken the week after this year’s election showed Obama with a 68-percent approval rating – exceeding his popular vote margin by 16 points, and
President George W. Bush's approval rating by 41. The poll found that 80 percent of respondents believe Obama will improve conditions for minorities and the poor, 76 percent believe he will improve America's image around the world, 71 percent think he will improve education, 70 percent say the same thing about the environment and 67 percent have confidence in his ability to reduce unemployment.
A CBS News poll taken during the same period found that 63 percent of Americans, including one in five voters for John McCain, are pleased that Obama won the election. Just one in four are disappointed. In that poll, seven out of 10 respondents declared themselves to be optimistic about the next four years, including nearly half of McCain supporters, with just 17 percent disagreeing. Seven in 10 believe Obama will bring Americans together, including half of Republicans.
Such optimism in the wake of a national election is not unprecedented. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton came into office with similar numbers (the current president inspired less optimism in the wake of the contested 2000 race and his election in 2004.) And all came into office following a political, economic or national security crisis (the Nixon pardon, 1970s "stagflation," the Iran hostage crisis, Iran Contra and the 1992 recession, respectively.)
But what is unprecedented in the Obama ascendancy is the breadth of his challenge – an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, two wars, and a sharp turn from America's painful history on race with the election of our first black president; a feat achieved with the assent of a majority of not just black, but also
Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic and young Americans, voters in three former Confederate states (Florida, North Carolina and Virginia,) and a larger percentage of white voters than any modern Democrat except two southerners: Bill Clinton in 1996 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Meanwhile, around the world, in Poland and Japan, England and Australia, the Middle East and across Africa, Obama's victory is being hailed as the dawn of a new age of American reason, and a restoration of this country as a member of the global community. After eight years of Bush unilateralism on Iraq, the war on terror and climate change, and the setting aside of more than 200 years of precedent on such things as indefinite detention and torture, the world is reveling in the chance to look up to America again. (On Election Night, the second call I took while sitting in as a guest on a radio broadcast from the crowded Mahogany Grille restaurant in Miami Gardens, was from my father; a Reaganite and someone with whom I have spoken only infrequently throughout my life. He was calling from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His two-word greeting: "We won.")
Such worldwide anticipation adds to Obama's import, but it also adds to the weight of his challenge. A middling or unsuccessful presidency would produce a worldwide letdown.
In international media in particular, Obama is being compared to Nelson Mandela. Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in South Africa on Feb. 11, 1990 after serving 27 years of a life sentence, including 18 years on notorious Robin Island. Four years later, and three months after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with white
South African President F.W. de Klerk, Mandela was elected that country's first black president. It was the first election in that country to include voters of all races. The expectations of South Africa's mostly poor, previously disenfranchised black majority were legion, and Mandela's ability to cure all of their ills limited. Mandela stepped down in 1999 after just one term. His preferred candidate, a former anti-Apartheid activist, lost his bid to become leader of the African National Congress to Mandela's deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela remains a worldwide hero, but his stint as president is a study in the chasm between hope and governance.
Unlike Mandela (or Polish labor and democracy activist Lech Walesa, who became that country's president the same year Mandela was freed), Obama comes into the office without decades on the world stage. He was not old enough to be part of the American civil rights movement (most of whose leaders rejected his candidacy during the primaries). And yet, Obama is being invested with the hopes and dreams of millions of people in America and around the world, of all races, who believe him to be, in a sense, America's Mandela. Managing and tempering those expectations will be as important for President Obama as finding a fix to America's economic woes (and a way to work with a Republican opposition that isn't going away quietly).
Whatever he does, Obama's election all but guarantees that he will be a transformational figure. His challenge will be to walk America, and the world, back from the temptation to believe he can do it all, right way, and to give himself time to act, and latitude to occasionally fall short. Like no modern president, Barack Obama must find a way to blend pragmatism with hope.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist, and a former co-host of “Wake Up South Florida” on WTPS 1080 AM. She briefly worked on Obama’s campaign in Florida.