It is staggering to contemplate, from the long view of history, what the re-election of President Obama will mean, should it occur next week.
Gripped by the ferocious combat of the election for months now, Obama, Gov. Romney, the campaigns, the media, the pundits and the electorate have been far too close to the action to contemplate what all of this will mean from the standpoint of the wider destiny of the species.
The fact that this race remains so close at this late stage is, in itself, a testament to something truly profound.
It could be credibly argued that in 2008, President Obama rode a combination of unique factors that contributed to his ability to win that election. There was the tremendous unpopularity of George W. Bush and his wars. There was the unimpressive campaign of his much older opponent, crippled by the astonishing decision to plant an obviously incompetent political neophyte within a heartbeat of the presidency as his running mate.
Finally, there were the opening stages of the Great Recession lurching and spiraling the economy downward, savaging individual retirement accounts and driving unprecedented levels of panic and job loss.
Under these conditions, the fresh and new Obama’s bright-eyed appeal to hope and change was able to produce a stunning American first – the previously almost unthinkable notion of an African-American president.
The sheer depth of the Great Recession, the very real threat of slipping into a global economic abyss, that Obama inherited upon his inauguration provided him with an impetus for extraordinary measures in his first months. His robust “stimulus” effort brought the economy from the brink, calming the panic by reassuring the world that bold actions by an American leadership could do mighty things.
But then, once the worst was over, matters changed quickly. Obama’s fierce enemies, the ones he defeated in the election, began to regroup and to subject Washington to the worst era of abject, cynical obstructionism in the nation’s history.
Only by rigidly closing ranks with one, and only one, goal in mind – the defeat of everything Obama tried to do, and ultimately of Obama, himself, in the next election – the Republicans were willing to sacrifice their own constituencies, much less the national interest, to this obsession.
Unleashed in this process were “grasstops” movements like the Tea Party, inspired by a Wall Street commentator and engineered by the GOP’s Dick Armey and his heavily Wall Street-funded Freedom Works operation, cleverly, subtly and often not so subtly appealing to residual racist prejudices to draw out blind, irrational anger aimed at everything Obama tried to accomplish.
In this process, the Wall Street-controlled major media cast this assault on Obama in the framework of an impasse for which both sides shared equal responsibility. The more Obama tried to reach across the aisle, the more the Republicans escalated their stonewalling tactic, rigidly unwilling to credit Obama with a single good initiative, even though most of what he sought to do was quite moderate.
It took Obama too long, perhaps, to grasp the extent of this GOP commitment to the demise of his administration, and even longer to finally become fed up and then to take it head on.
So, much of the current presidential campaign has seen a far more combative Obama, ignoring the risk that forceful and combative postures might alienate some elements of the electorate. Far more than that, it emboldened and fired up his supporters, transforming what had begun as a lackluster reelection effort into another powerful, impassioned and resolute grass roots crusade.
The president became much better at insisting on no apologies, at calling out his GOP opponents on their crippling intransigence, and bending public opinion toward a recognition that the governmental impasse was not a shared fault, but the work of only one of the two parties.
So, it has come down to this, on the eve of the November 2012 election, an African-American is not only president, but within shouting distance of becoming a re-elected president, despite all that has been thrown against him in his first four years.
Were this to happen, it would trump the historic significance of his first election and by a large degree.