Looking at the exit polls for a random assortment of swing states that went for Obama--Indiana, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and Nevada--is interesting and has implications, I think, for how Obama should govern.
First, it seems pretty clear that whatever this election was, it does not look like a mandate for an aggressive liberal agenda. In Indiana, for instance, voters identified themselves as follows: 44% Moderate, 36% Conservative, 20% Liberal. Virginia was 46% Moderate, 33% Conservative, and 21% Liberal. Florida was 47%M, 35%C, and 19%L. Ohio was 45M-35C-20L. Pennsylvania was 50M-27C-23L. Nevada was 44M-34C-22L. Obama won basically because he won the moderates (he even collected a few conservatives here and there).
By definition, I would think that a winning coalition predicated on moderates will expect Obama to govern as a moderate and a pragmatist, not a hard-core liberal. In every one of these swing states, the center of gravity in the state appears to be basically center-right. Unless Obama governs more like Clinton than Carter, he is going to run into problems four years from now.
Of course, one reason we are having this discussion is that I don't think anybody knows for sure what Obama actually intends to do. I was watching election returns last night and Fred Barnes and Juan Williams got into a heated discussion about whether Obama "really" supports card-check. I don't think anyone seriously believes that Obama intends to cut taxes as much as he says or to sit down and go through the budget "line by line, page by page" to cut wasteful programs. What will he do? I don't think we really know.
Or as one commentator put it last night--"Will he govern the way he has voted and acted his whole life (very liberal) or on what he says he'll do (pragmatic moderate)?" To a large extent this probably depends on his sense of political self-survival. Every policy instinct he has is extremely liberal. But obviously he is smart enough and enough of a cold-blooded political calculator to understand something about political survival. The ease in which he turned on a dime and flip-flopped on several positions between the primaries and general election suggests a minimal commitment to any political principle when confronted with political expediency. One commentator last night mentioned that Obama told her that his "rhetoric on NAFTA in the primaries" was somewhat exaggerated, which she took as suggesting that his protectionist rhetoric was purely political. Ditto, of course, for his commitment to accepting public financing for his campaign. So he seems to have some degree of "flexibility" in his commitment to political principle.
On the other hand, relations with the Democrats in Congress could be a challenging issue. Talking to friends who work as staffers on the Hill, they say there are two basic elements to Obama: (1) he is "really, really liberal," and (2) "he is incredibly indecisive." (This latter tendency is summarized a bit, I think, in the much-referenced unusually high tendency for Obama to vote "present" during his time in the state legislature). And the latter attribute is the one that will challenge him, both domestically and in foreign policy. His lack of executive experience is going to be a substantial problem for him when it comes time for him to actually make decisions. His entire career he has been able to avoid making and taking responsibilities for decisions. This is exactly what has allowed him to float above the fray and not get pinned down on anything. His strength is that he uses great consideration and collects information in making a decision; his weakness is that he never actually makes any decision.
Indecisiveness is an obvious problem in foreign affairs. But my concern is that it may be a problem in domestic policy as well. I have some concern about Obama's ability to stand up to the old bulls in Congress--Frank, Durbin, Byrd, Schumer, etc. Obama's great attractiveness as a politician is his expressed desire and perhaps ability is to bring people together to try to form a consensus (I say "perhaps ability" because I'm not sure that there is any evidence that he has actually done this, as opposed to saying he is going to do it). But one has to wonder whether he actually has it in him to say "No" to the Congressional Democrats. Again, he has never been an executive. He has never had to say "No" or seriously think about tradeoffs. How does he form consensus among those who aren't interested in consensus?
My fear is that Congress is just going to roll right over him. And that his desire to form consensus and avoid conflict could turn out to be little more than a perception of weakness by congressional and foreign leaders. Consensus and agreement is not a good thing if you elevate that over everything else, and are willing to give away almost anything in order to get agreement.
So that even if he desires to govern as a moderate, he is still going to have to demonstrate the ability to stand up to members of Congress and interest groups who are going to want to push him to the left. I hope he can do that--but it is not obvious that there is anything in his experience or skill set to suggest optimism that he can stand up to these politically savvy and strong-willed congressional leaders who have decades more experience than he does (not to mention some of the ruthless characters on the international scene).
Second, a nonsystematic flip through the exit polls suggests that one major story of this election is that it appears that the Baby Boomers may have succeeded in replicating themselves through their children. Assuming this holds up to more systematica scrutiny, it looks like the two most pro-Obama cohorts were the under-29 group and the 50-64 group.
If last night is any indication, then the "Millenials" may be a replication of their parents. On the other hand, perhaps this is just a passing phase of youth. But, on the other hand, it may be that these two groups are uniquely receptive to the sort of messianic and rhetorical style of politics suggested by Obama. My casual impression of the Millenials is that in many ways their style of politics is reminscent of the Baby Boomers--personal, symbolic, emotional, utopian, and expressive, rather than substantive and pragmatic. Or, if you prefer, unconstrained vision instead of constrained vision.
If that is so, then my earlier hope for a more healthy post-Boomer political system may be unfounded. If this is so, then I confess that this is more than a little dismaying to me, simply from the perspective that I was looking forward to the day when all the Boomers would ride off into the sunset and leave us alone.
Third, the exit polls generally suggest that voters thought that McCain unfairly attacked Obama more than the other way around. In Ohio, 71% of voters said McCain attacked Obama unfairly and only 53% said that of Obama. In Florida it was 64% to 48%. In Virginia it was 69-47. In Nevada, it was 70-53. In Indiana, it was 66-53.
Now, I don't think anyone would seriously suggest that overall there were more "unfair attacks" against Obama than against McCain--and especially against Sarah Palin. By voters' perception that there were more unfair attacks by McCain than by Obama more than vice-versa does not seem unreasonable to me. The problem is not that--the problem is that McCain and especially Palin were attacked unfairly a lot, and a lot more than Obama was attacked. But it wasn't by Obama because the media did the job for him. That is a major systematic tilting of the playing field, especially when a candidate is trying to run the sort of campaign McCain ran, focused on bipartisanship.
This reflects, I think, and underappreciated aspect of the media bias in this election. Clearly it affected the substance of the election in multiple ways. But is also affected the process of the election as well in a way that I think affected the outcome. Because the media was so aggressive in attacking McCain and puffing up Obama, this had two crucial effects. First, it enabled Obama again to stay largely above the fray and look like the "good guy" because the media was doing all his dirty work. Second, because the media wouldn't criticize Obama, it meant that McCain had to (although I still think that the whole "radical associations" line of attack was distracting and silly). Which in turn exposed McCain to the criticism--by the media--that he was attacking unfairly.
This is a problem that the Republicans are going to have to figure out how to address in future elections, because I think it is reasonable to conclude that the mainstream media is not going to change, and if anything, they will be emboldened by this experience. I suspect that the McCain campaign simply underestimated the viciousness with which the media would go after Palin and was simply unprepared for that onslaught. McCain saw a young, successful, charismatic, competent governor; the media saw the second coming of Clarence Thomas, just on a larger stage. McCain's team can be faulted for not anticipating what the meanstream media would try to do to Palin. On the other hand, the ferociousness of the media's onslaught and the degree of bias in this campaign surprised even me, who was about as hardened skeptic about the MSM as can be imagined.
Republicans have got to do a better job anticipating this hostile terrain in the future--I'm not sure how, but it really changed the entire dynamics of this election.
Thus, I think the impact on the political system of media bias runs even deeper than just the substance of the election. But it changed the whole dynamic of the election and the process of the election by allowing Obama to remain above the fray while McCain and Palin had to do their own dirty work.