When more than 100 million people vote, there is no end of the interpretations that are possible. And when they select one president, more than 450 members of the national legislature, and who knows how many officials of state governments, there is a huge range of possible impacts on public policy.
The people who framed the constitution, on the basis of profound distrust of the people, did their job well. No new departures will be possible without agreement between individuals from enough institutions to assure moderation in the change.
With all that can be said about what happened, and what will result, it is possible to see some features that can be described as "typically American."
One was a classic clash between mobilized masses and a group of elites who sought to buttress themselves against the inevitable.
Well-mobilized African-American and Hispanics, along with white women voting against white men cleaving to their sacred values should remind us of the Irish and other immigrants mobilized against the WASPs from the 19th century until Richard Daley's end as one of the last Irish bosses.
This will not be the end of the Republican Party, but if Tea Party enthusiasts haven't gotten the message they ought to complete their historic scenario by drowning themselves in Boston Harbor.
No one is about to burn the churches of the Christian Right, and they will continue to limit women's rights in the less enlightened parts of the United States, but they, too, should rethink priorities and possibilities.
We'll see how the drama of politics comes up against the details of government. There remains substantial American sentiment in favor of small government, with a good position in the House of Representatives. The game to watch will concern the resolution of financial problems. The immigrants took over city halls but did not empty the WASP-controlled banks. Likewise, this year's slogan of Forward, which replaced the 2008 message of Change, is not likely to produce anything revolutionary.
Obamacare was the best sign of change coming out of the first term, but there is modesty apparent in the reliance on profit-making insurance companies, and what else may lie in the muddle of legislation with more than two thousand pages.
Alas, the leader of the world's greatest power cannot spend all of his energy on local matters, no matter how important they may be for the American economy (and by obvious extension the world's economy).
The first trip abroad, with all the symbolism inherent in the headlines, will be to Myanmar.
Why Myanmar? Or Burma, which appears in virtually all the reports about that far off and all but forgotten place to remind us of its former name.
One explanation is China, and the President's concern to express his commitment to the area labeled "Pacific" in the American press even though Myanmar is a thousand miles from the Pacific. Americans see China as restive, in territorial squabbles with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and building aircraft carriers. China also owns lots of US government bonds, bought with the profits from what we all buy from the Chinese, so the tensions are bound to be interesting.
I am not one of those complaining that the first post-election trip should have been to Israel. Indeed, I don't want the US president in this country. The benefits are not worth the inconvenience of closing the road from the airport to Jerusalem while the mighty and his huge entourage come to Jerusalem, and then closing down movement in the city while they are here. Better that business be handled via telephone, Skype, or visits of Israeli leaders to Washington.
Whatever is the reality of the claims about the lack of an harmonious relationship between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister, the lack of an early Obama visit will be a tolerable cost. The international credibility of Israel as well as the United States suffers from the image of unity between the two countries. Symbolic distance will benefit both, assuming there remain agreement about the evils that cannot be tolerated.
Read that to be the threats coming from Iran, which resemble what commentators are calling the American slide toward a "fiscal cliff." Both ought to be high priority for the President, and for neither is there anything like an easy solution.
Obama's election in 2008 reflected, among other things, an American capacity to elevate an untried but superficially attractive individual to the highest political office. It wouldn't be likely in a European or Israeli parliamentary regime where slow rise and experience count for a great deal. Obama's American naivete showed itself in that Cairo speech, which assumed that all people are enough like Americans to be prodded to American styles of equality and democracy. Claims still heard from Obama-loyal correspondents that Americans support Arab spring and see it as the road to widespread democracy reinforce the image of parochial ignorance. More than 50,000 dead and many thousands more injured and displaced in Libya and Syria, Islamic extremists prominent in the Egypt government and opposition groups in Syria, and rival tribes fighting in Libya should not boost anyone's confidence in the spread of democracy.
Hopefully the trip to Myanmar and the photo-op with Aung San Suu Kyi are not more of the same Obama naivete. Positive signs are that the President learned from frustrations about the surge in Afghanistan and seeing the freezing of construction in East Jerusalem as the key to Middle East peace. Less promising are statements from individuals who may be close to the President that it is time to return seriously to negotiations about Palestine, and to try yet again to persuade Iranians to give up the nuclear option.
The claim of someone--or about someone--that he/she is "close to the President" defies precision and verification. The reality may be that no one is close to the President. The American presidency is a lousy job, demanding great work and stress to obtain, with the glory but also the burdens of living in the spotlight, working under the weight of countless expectations and demands not only from Americans but also from Myanmar, Israel and just about every other place. The power is enormous, but the difficulties in using it can be gauged by the agenda of unmet aspirations.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 09, 2012 01:00 AM