The new era of Obama

Sherman Alexie, Joan Blades, Robert Dallek, Greil Marcus, Dan Savage and others weigh in on Obama's historic presidential win.

Published November 6, 2008 11:40AM (EST)

Sherman Alexie, novelist and poet
1. Yes, it's historic and incredible that a black man is president of the United States. But, dang it, it's just as important that a black woman is the first lady. Think about it. Jackie O! Lady Bird Johnson! And Michelle Obama in her Gap dresses! Please don't discount the cultural power of the first lady. I am very excited to see how Michelle Obama also revolutionizes the White House.

2. How many Republicans watched the footage of the Obama and McCain gatherings Tuesday night and noticed the incredible differences? The Obama crowds were racially, culturally, sartorially, rhythmically and age diverse. The McCain crowds were, well, they were very blond. How will Republicans address this imbalance? Maybe thousands of young Republicans will become high school and elementary school teachers in poor and inner-city neighborhoods, while Republican political leaders will demand and help create massive funding for poor and inner-city schools. Of course, I'm kidding. Republicans will do no such thing. But they should adopt a revolutionary educational platform.

3. Jesse Jackson wept Tuesday night. And they were tears of joy and grief. That man was standing beside MLK Jr. when he was assassinated. Jesse Jackson has earned those tears.

4. Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen have performed for and with Obama. So aren't you absolutely excited about who will perform at the inauguration parties? Here's hoping Beyoncé, Tim McGraw, Kanye West, Death Cab for Cutie, the Dixie Chicks and the Harlem Boys Choir perform "People Get Ready."

5. I hereby order that "mandate" immediately be stricken from all the dictionaries and vocabularies of every Democrat in the country. That dirty word has no place in a democracy. That said, feel free to use the phrase, "Wow, we kicked some ass."

6. Thank God for Tina Fey and the power of political art.

Greil Marcus, author and journalist
I walked out of Northrop Auditorium Tuesday night after Bob Dylan's concert on the campus of his erstwhile alma mater, the University of Minnesota. The second number of the night was "The Times They Are A-Changin'," a song I never liked. On Tuesday night it moved slowly, crawling like a snake, all 44 years since it first appeared loaded into it, as if its real subject was what it means to wait. The last song was "Blowin' in the Wind." (I remember very clearly the first time I heard it on the radio. "Kinda erstatz," said Barry Franklin, my best friend and radio cruising partner; we were still in high school.) "I was born in 1941, the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since," Dylan said to introduce the song, or as a goodbye, or, as he hadn't spoken before, as a hello. "But it looks like things are going to change now." At the end of the stage he stepped out from behind his electric organ and did a jig.

I feel as if I'm living in a new world and an old country, where all of its best words, down the centuries, are flesh. Or, as Barry Franklin put it last night, "I feel like I've died and gone to America."

Joan Blades, co-founder
This election is about much more than who won and who lost. It's about our culture changing, becoming more inclusive and embracing our diverse citizenry. It's about courage and dreams winning out over fear. It's about coming together to reject the politics of the past and instead deciding to build the kind of nation we want for ourselves and our children.

What happened Tuesday can be the start of a profound change in our country, the goals we set, the ways we operate, and how we measure success. My most profound hope is that we become a more family-friendly nation that is compassionate, just and fair to all its people.

I am co-founder of MomsRising, and in that role I will work tirelessly to continue mobilizing moms and everyone who has a mom, all over the country, so we take advantage of this opportunity to advance paid sick days and family leave, flexible work, after-school programs, healthcare for all kids, and realistic and fair wages.

We did something remarkable Tuesday, but our work isn't done. The challenges we're facing are great, and the obstacles to progress won't disappear overnight. We all have to remain active and engaged if we are to realize the promise of yesterday's election.

Dan Savage, author and sex advice columnist
Tuesday night I was overjoyed.

But Wednesday morning, reading the papers and listening to the news on the radio, my boyfriend and I -- we're boyfriends in the USA, husbands in Canada -- sat at our kitchen table and had the exact same discussion we had the morning after the 2004 election: When the hell are we moving to Canada?

The anti-gay politicking that goes on in this country is a bit like a dog whistle: Straight people can't hear it, but it drives gay people absolutely around the bend. The importance of Obama's victory can't be overstated; I'm as moved as anyone else. But the passage of anti-gay marriage amendments in Arizona, Florida and, most heartbreakingly of all, California (and with overwhelming support from African-American voters), along with the passage of an anti-gay adoption amendment in Arkansas, left us both feeling shell-shocked, betrayed and angry.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University
New York exults. Don't say, "Well, what did you expect?" When strangers embrace and high-five on upper Broadway ("Yes we did!"), when church bells ring in Harlem at 2 in the morning, when 125th Street clogs up, as do Brooklyn streets, and celebrants dance on the roofs of taxis, when confetti rains down on the northwest Bronx, this is astonishing -- a popular festival that's unprecedented, maybe since VJ day in 1945. We've entered a new world.

It's not, God knows, a world that will stay exultant or one that'll be easily or quickly "fixed." In fact, it won't be fixed. We have a president-elect who, true to his Niebuhrian roots, knows that it can't be fixed -- knows the difference between improving and fixing. But it can be galvanized, and, yes, in some measure redeemed. In what measure? That depends on Obama's adroitness (the campaign promises much); on his ability to keep his tremendous base of the professional classes, minorities and women mobilized and deployed against the forces that will continue to block his initiatives (Yes we did it once! and will have to do it again!); on the wisdom of Democrats; on whether some Republicans can be peeled away from their kamikaze party; and, as always, on the unpredictable.

Let the 21st century begin. Finally.

Robert Dallek, author, presidential historian
Obama's victory represents a landmark moment in American history. His election was the result of national alienation from the George W. Bush presidency; indeed, the election may be considered a referendum on Bush's failed policies on Katrina, Iraq, the environment and the economy. Obama's understanding that the country wanted change and wished for an inspirational voice that promised a turn toward more constructive action was also a principal part of his success. I believe that historians will look back on 2008 as the end of the Reagan conservative era and the start of a new period of progressive federal activism.

If Obama succeeds in putting across economic and social reforms that change the national landscape, I think he will gain a place in the pantheon of exceptional presidents. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ and Reagan, Obama has the chance to be remembered as an innovative leader who advanced the national well-being in difficult times.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Women can relish the victory and justifiably share much of the credit. Sen. Obama won women by 13 points -- where John Kerry barely had any gender gap advantage at all. Women were energized in this presidential race unlike ever before, beginning with the historic candidacy of Sen. Hillary Clinton and, eventually, through their growing awareness of the abysmal record of Sen. John McCain on basic women's issues. From equal pay to reproductive rights to healthcare coverage, women increasingly saw John McCain as fundamentally out of touch with their basic needs. And the Hail Mary nomination of Sarah Palin only exacerbated the sense that he just didn't get it.

Larry Blumenfeld, music journalist
Morning in America it may not be, nor am I in some shining city on a hill. It's just another day at the crest of the hill that is Park Slope, Brooklyn. But buried in my local coffee shop's calm are remnants of a joy-filled night that has bled into early moments of hopeful anticipation, which is remarkably different from instinctive anxiety.

On Tuesday night, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra -- the band that bassist Haden first assembled in 1968 and has reconvened during each Republican administration -- had just ended Carla Bley's "Blue Anthem" during a late set at Manhattan's Blue Note when Allen Broadbent (subbing for Bley) jumped up from the piano bench.

"Obama has won!"

Someone had whispered the news in Broadbent's ear, along with the Democratic electoral-vote total at 11:20 p.m. (It was 297 and counting.)

"Are you sure?" Haden asked, clutching his bass.

Broadbent nodded.

"Man!" Haden sighed with force. He stood silent a few moments. "I guess it's time to play 'Amazing Grace.'"

And they did.

I wonder what all this will mean for my infant son, Sam, whom I'd promised would have to endure a cynical, ill-meaning government for only the first few months of life. Or what it will mean for my friends in New Orleans, who might dare to think that public servants who long ago turned away might just look back with concern and compassion and the political will to act. Or even in Cuba, where, for most of the Bush presidency, the musicians I know have been banned from the stages and concert halls in my or any other American city.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law
Never in my adult life has there been more hope surrounding the election of a president. And never in American history has there been a president as knowledgeable in the law, and especially constitutional law, as Barack Obama. The most obvious place where this will matter is in his judicial appointments. There likely will be somewhere between one and three vacancies on the Supreme Court over the next four years. Justice John Paul Stevens is 88 years old and it does not seem likely that he will still be on the court at age 93 in 2013. There are rumors that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter might step down.

Obama's replacing one or more of these individuals likely will not change the ideological composition of the court in the short term; he is likely to choose individuals who have similar views. But Obama's picks for the lower courts, especially the U.S. Court of Appeals, could be transformative. Most federal courts of appeals have a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents, but in many places that will change over the next four years. In light of a Senate with at least 56 Democrats, Obama should be able to pick judges without confirmation fights.

Obama's knowledge of constitutional law will matter in other areas. He has the chance to overturn Bush administration policies that compromised basic human rights. One of Obama's first actions should be to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay and either transfer its inmates to federal prisons or release them. Guantánamo is an international embarrassment and has become a symbol of America's violations of international law.

Obama also needs to immediately rescind Bush administration policies authorizing torture, permitting renditions that violate international law, and authorizing extrajudicial spying on Americans. From the moment of his inauguration, Obama must declare that the United States will comply with international law and follow its own Constitution.

In fact, Obama must take the difficult step of initiating the process for war crimes prosecutions of men such as Dick Cheney, David Addington and John Yoo. In her brilliant book "The Dark Side," investigative journalist Jane Mayer provides compelling proof that these, and likely other individuals, violated basic norms of international law. Moving forward requires taking the difficult step of holding these individuals accountable.

Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation
Barack Obama is the first new media "Facebook" president. He built on the pioneering work that Joe Trippi deployed for the Howard Dean campaign and used social networking architecture to motivate, inspire, fundraise and mobilize millions of people who are new to the voting scene. I saw many crying while standing in line to vote -- silent tears of hope in the morning that became rivers of happy tears when he took the stage and said he would be a president for all Americans.

Obama needs to move beyond the campaign now, and as a nation, we need to put aside the "wow" of all of this and get to dealing with the fact that no president in modern times has inherited such eroded and dangerous national security and economic conditions.

Obama has reportedly selected a shrewd chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- not exactly a poster child for constructive bipartisanship. But Emanuel, like Nixon going to China, can reach out to Republicans (and former Republicans) like Chuck Hagel, Lincoln Chafee, Richard Lugar, Rita Hauser, Brent Scowcroft and others, and meld their expertise on national security statecraft with the global justice agenda reflected in the work and thinking of people like Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Anne-Marie Slaughter, James Galbraith, James Steinberg, Gayle Smith and Anthony Lake. We need to face head-on some of the great 21st century challenges barreling toward us. But we need to be able to generate actual results -- not platitudes -- for citizens at home and abroad.

That requires a smart globalization --- not manic neoliberalism. We need Obama to help generate a new global social contract between the United States and other responsible global stakeholders, and we need a new social contract at home.

We need to figure out what can be done to make sure that Iran is an ally of ours in 20 years. We need to be working with Russia and China and Europe, and not be at constant odds with them. We need to end the embargo against Cuba, the only place in the world where the Cold War not only didn't cease but got colder in recent years. There will be no stability in the Middle East without a grand bargain that simultaneously works to solve many interlocking dramas in the region -- with the Israeli-Palestinian standoff perhaps the most important.

This is all doable if Obama and his team are brilliant, embrace the future and make sure that "Obama I" doesn't start off as a George W. Bush III or Bill Clinton III.

By Salon Staff

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