However, from now until Inauguration Day is the last moment when so many of us in New York will feel so happily synchronized and united. Enjoy it while you can. Just as the trauma after 9/11 had a half-life, and then accelerated as no further attacks occurred, so will the euphoria over President Obama begin to fade on January 21, and accelerate when no unicorns and rainbow bridges and candy-cane trees appear during 2009 or, experts expect, 2010. In his victory speech last Tuesday night, his rhetoric was as well modulated as ever, balancing the goose-bumpy yes-we-cans with a prudent, rational, buzz-killing reminder that he and we must now deal with several gargantuan messes that won’t vanish when the Republicans leave Washington. And even though he may turn out to be, thanks to armed Islamic extremism and economic disarray, the 21st century’s FDR, if we can please avoid another Great Depression and the equivalent of World War II, I’ll be happy if he’s nothing more than a Democratic Ronald Reagan.
We need to manage our reactions and moods as the Obama miracle turns into just … a presidency. On the one hand, we need to look at the way the Hannitys and Limbaughs and Coulters behaved during the six years that Republicans ran Washington, and avoid becoming their irritating mirror images. And on the other hand, when Obama winds up governing more from the center than the left—as he’s promised to do all along—we have to ignore the ideologues and chronic complainers among us who will scream betrayal! when he hasn’t withdrawn from Iraq quickly enough, doesn’t simply free all the terrorists from Guantánamo, supports offshore drilling and nuclear power and non-union-approved experiments in public education. We need to abandon the default impulse to oppositionism, and not let our habit of the last several years congeal and continue as a kind of neurotic imperative to whine. Of course, from the point of view of political cynicism (of which the president-elect has a healthy amount), some left-wing opposition would be useful to the Obama administration, because it will help persuade the center and the sane right that he is not such a wild-eyed lefty after all.
And is he not, in fact? I don’t think so, but all the Obama voters I know, from a Park Slope Noam Chomskyite to a red-state Republican friend of Laura Bush’s, think that Obama is their president-elect. What precisely will Obamaism turn out to be? A lot of New York types have always professed horror that people voted for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush because they “liked” them, had positive gut feelings about them. Yet in the end we, too, voted for what we take to be Obama’s elegant, clear-eyed, unruffled temperament and personality.
What about the millions of Americans who, unlike most of their rabble-rousers in the media, genuinely fear and loathe Obama? Some of them will chill. Some of them will be pleasantly surprised. And he will continue, I think, to go out of his way to soothe the fearful, as he did in the victory speech, when he quoted Lincoln’s aside to Southerners at the end of his first inaugural address in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Of course, the Civil War immediately followed. But I’m hopeful. The civil-rights revolution of the fifties and sixties actually turned people’s real lives upside down, required them to cede power in their daily lives, as did the feminist revolution of the seventies. For those who consider every abortion the killing of a person, Roe v. Wade unleashed a great moral evil. Unlike those earlier, legally enforced lurches toward freedom, the potency of this moment is all in its symbolism. The election of Barack Obama doesn’t require ordinary people to give up any actual perquisites or status, as the progressive moments of the fifties and sixties and seventies did. It shouldn’t be painful.
And we proudly rational Obamamaniacs are, let’s be honest, a little irrational ourselves in ways that resemble the irrationality of a lot of Obama-haters. Our secularist faith in Obama really is a little religious. And people who earn over $200,000 voted 52 to 46 percent in favor of Obama—voted, in other words, to have their taxes raised significantly. Are they not just like the working-class Republican voters who irrationally vote against their own economic interests in order to realize certain symbolic hopes and dreams? A black president is to us what a pro-life president is to them, important and gratifying even if it doesn’t maximize our material well-being. What’s the matter with Kansas, you ask? Well, what’s the matter with New York? We’re all in this together.