Mason Experts React to Historic Presidential Election

Posted: November 10, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Barack Obama with students
President-elect Barack Obama’s popularity with younger voters was just one facet of this historic election, Mason experts say.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

By James Greif, Robin Herron, and Tara Laskowski

“I am watching history being made. Black or white, Asian or Hispanic, Native American or other, this moment matters for us all,” says Jeremy Mayer, associate professor of public policy, recalling his first thought when he knew Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States.

“My first thought was sheer delight,” says Susan Tolchin, University Professor of public policy. “I never thought I’d see an African American president in my lifetime.”

Obama silhouete
Photo by Evan Cantwell

And for Assistant Professor of Communication Mark Hopson, who is African American, the moment held personal poignancy.

“My first conscious thought was prayer — to give thanks for what this means to our children, elders, ancestors, nation and world. The tears came later.”

One by one, Mason faculty members who closely watched the presidential campaigns registered their personal feelings about the election, then quickly moved into analysis mode. What does this new face and new administration mean for the United States? What does the election say about Americans? And perhaps most important, what is going to happen next?

The Mason Gazette called on Mason faculty members in a variety of fields to get their reactions to the election and list the priorities for the Obama administration.

The Transition

Jeremy Mayer
Jeremy Mayer

As rumors swirled about who Obama would name to key posts in the new administration, Mayer was ready with predictions.

“He will move fast, and in particular on his economic team. There is a lot of talk about Gates staying at Defense. I think that would be a very good idea, politically. The question is: does Gates want it? It is a grueling job, and he seemed quite happy as a president of a university. As for other key appointments, if he can convince Lugar to leave the Senate and be his secretary of state, that would be a fine selection, politically. Chuck Hagel will get an ambassadorship, I think, not a cabinet slot.”

Whither Republicans?

Susan Tolchin
Susan Tolchin

Mason experts disagree somewhat on Gov. Sarah Palin’s future.

“Palin will not be the nominee in 2012, unless she changes her public image dramatically to a less divisive, more competent figure, or if the Republicans simply want to concede the election, as the Democrats did in 1972 by nominating McGovern,” says Mayer.

“Sarah Palin will be the new leader of the Republican Party, and probably run for president in 2012,” says Tolchin.

Virginia — Blue or Red?

With the 2008 election, has Virginia moved into the blue state category for good?

Mayer thinks not.

“Virginia can be competitive for the right Republican. The Republicans in Virginia and nationally need to figure out how to move beyond the Reagan coalition. It shattered in 2008, and they can either try to resuscitate it, which would be a mistake, or they can try to figure out a platform that addresses the issues of concern to the voters beyond their shrinking white base.

“Joe the Plumber and Palin’s type of nativistic populism is a recipe for minority status for quite a few years, unless Obama and the Democrats truly screw up and hand the election to the GOP in 2010 and 2012. As for the Virginia GOP, figures like Eric Cantor are the future of the party, although George Allen could launch a comeback,” Mayer says.

Toni Michele Travis
Toni-Michelle Travis

Toni-Michelle Travis, associate professor of public and international affairs and expert on Virginia politics, says, “The changing demographics, especially in Northern Virginia, are determining electoral outcomes. My perspective throughout the final days of the presidential race was that Obama would win Virginia, but by only a few votes. The number of new registrants in Prince William and Loudoun Counties who are younger and more democratic favored the Obama/Biden ticket.”

Travis says that voters in the “exurbs” helped elect Mark Warner, first as governor, then as U.S. senator, Timothy Kaine as governor, and Jim Webb as U.S. senator. “Northern Virginia will now dominate all future elections just because it has become the urban center of the state,” Travis predicts.

The Youth Vote

Janette Muir with students
Janette Muir, front, with students in New Hampshire.

How much weight did youths — especially newly enfranchised and college-age young people — carry in this election?

Janette Muir and Lisa Gring-Pemble, associate professors in New Century College, took a group of Mason students to New Hampshire for a week in January to observe the presidential campaigns closely. They say this year young voters mattered. The professors note that Rock the Vote registered more than 2.5 million new voters in 2008 and participation in primaries and caucuses by young voters more than doubled compared to eight years ago.

“President-elect Barack Obama’s mass grassroots movement approach, the re-energizing of the Republican Party by vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and the role of technology — blogs and social networks such as Facebook — all played powerful roles in harnessing the youth energy in this election,” says Muir.

On Mason’s campus, significant efforts were made to help students learn about the candidates running in 2008, Gring-Pemble points out, and education leads to involvement, she says.

Lisa Gring-Pemble with students
Lisa Gring-Pemble, far right, with students in New Hampshire.

MasonVotes is a great example of several groups working together to create a space where the Mason community could stay informed about election happenings,” Gring-Pemble says. “Convention viewing events, debate watches, panel discussions, campaign volunteering and blogging were just a few ways that students actively participated in the election.

“What seems clear this year is that given multiple opportunities for experiential learning, young people can and will develop a better understanding about the political process and, in turn, become more civically engaged.”

Adds Muir, “The excitement of this year’s historic campaign will linger in our collective memories even as we celebrate the re-energizing of our democratic process. Young people found candidates to believe in, and many were willing to work hard to get out the vote. They found their voice and were empowered in the process.”

What Does Obama’s Election Say about Race?

“Barack Obama’s election represents a major step forward in the struggle for African Americans to become fully included in American society,” says Travis.

“His presidency could open doors if African Americans attain new positions in government – attorney general, secretary of defense. However, his election also gives opponents of Affirmative Action the opportunity to say that all racial barriers have been overcome, thus Affirmative Action is no longer necessary,” Travis warns.

Solon Simmons
Solon Simmons

Solon Simmons, assistant professor in Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, is concerned about this as well.

“I was surprised that so many prominent and respected African American critics were speaking as if the great race question had been answered once and for all. I am now waiting for the point at which the conversation on why representation is not enough becomes mainstream.”

When the “conversation” begins, Simmons sees several discussions that may emerge:

  • “We will talk about the definition of opportunity and what we owe to one another in light of the ravages of the past.”

  • “The notion of targeted assistance that took the name affirmative action in the 1960s will be hotly debated, as some will argue that what was always understood to be a temporary measure has come close to becoming a constitutional principle through age and habit.”

  • “Others will point out that the success of some does not suggest that the success of all is guaranteed.”

  • “We may start to tease out the differences in popular discourse between terms like racism, prejudice, unconscious bias and insensitivity.”

  • “We might begin to develop a post-racial sense of justice, which means that we begin to see race without seeing red. It may start to seem reasonable to give every African American child a decent chance at life by reducing the savage inequalities in school systems as opposed to valiantly attempting to assign equalizing outcomes after the youth education process has come to an end.”

  • “We may begin to wonder why so many African American men go to prison, when they should be going to college.”

  • “We may recognize that family structures are what they are, and that bemoaning the decline of the African American family is no substitute for ensuring the security and sanity of African American children.”

  • “If we are lucky, we will realize that the country itself is African European in origin, and all of us, black and white, are different than if we lived in either pure form alternative.”

Hopson, whose expertise includes the rhetoric of race, culture and gender, is also cautious about pinning too many hopes on Obama’s win.

“I am reminded to move beyond hyperboles and to be wary of what Cornel West describes as ‘the illusion of marginalized faces in high places.’ Yes, President-Elect Obama is an example of progress. However, as we see in California, marginalized groups continue to suffer in silence, regardless of popular perceptions of success.”

He adds, “A leader may express and even come to represent struggle, but palpable movement begins and ends with the people. Obama plays an important role in this historic moment, but this moment is bigger than one person.”

The Obama Rhetoric

Hopson calls the 2008 presidential election “one of the most profound demonstrations of voice in the history of this nation.”

Mark Hopson
Mark Hopson

“From a communication perspective, the Obama-Biden campaign emphasized a willingness to listen — which is a message in itself. Recall the acceptance speech and the promise to listen even during times of disagreement. In my view, this promise exemplified a transformative leadership style.

“Throughout the campaign, many voters heard their issues and their voices represented in Obama’s words. Communication is in part the act of communing. Obama understood this connection.”

Adds Tolchin, “Obama was much smarter than his immediate predecessors and was quick to squelch unfair accusations against him — when he could.”

Managing Expectations

Paul Posner, professor of public and international affairs, observes that Obama now faces the daunting task of meeting high expectations generated from campaign promises. At the same time, he must deal with two wars and a huge financial crisis.

Paul Posner
Paul Posner

“In this campaign alone, independent analysts calculated that the promises of both candidates were unaffordable and would add several hundred billions to the federal deficit in the next several years,” Posner says. “It is no wonder that nearly every postwar presidency became mired in disillusionment and disappointment, starting with a honeymoon and ending in what amounts to a national divorce.”

Yet, in Obama’s favor are his rhetorical skills, public support and a Congress controlled by his own party — “factors whose absence has contributed to gridlock, lagging policy actions and tepid and diluted policy responses to pressing problems,” Posner says.

Still, the federal deficit will constrain Obama’s administration throughout his entire term, Posner predicts.

“Some of this reflects the current financial crisis and economic recession, but at least half is what we call structural and will continue long after the economy recovers. Even as the economy recovers, the structural deficit will become far worse as the baby boom retires and health care costs grow.”

Obama’s promises of universal health care and middle class tax cuts “will exacerbate fiscal pressures,” Posner says. Even cutting unnecessary programs won’t do the trick. Posner sees raising taxes as inevitable.

“It is not a question of whether but when and how taxes will be raised. One promising area to consider is a national consumption tax — we are the only advanced economy without one.”

This is not necessarily a losing proposition, either, Posner says.

“The party that seeks cross-partisan cooperation in undertaking painful but necessary reforms on the spending and tax sides of the budget will be rewarded with political cover. A litmus test for the Obama administration will not be his new initiatives but rather how he will propose to pay for them and what legacy he will leave for the next administration and his children.”

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