What Barack Obama did not say

Stanley Greenberg

On election night 1992, all of us from Bill Clinton’s war room gathered at the front corner of the stage, looking up as the president-elect delivered his victory speech before the thousands in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas. As everyone knows now, Clinton had run on “the economy, stupid!” and the “forgotten middle class” and delivered the Democrats an unprecedented win. However, when laying out “the meaning of the election”, Clinton barely mentioned the economy. “Perhaps most important of all,” he said, is the goal of uniting the country “to bring our people together as never before so that our diversity can be a source of strength”. He did not use the words “middle class”.

If you want to understand Bill Clinton’s presidency, then you need to know how much he cared about overcoming the great racial divide of the old south and the racial and gender barriers that limited opportunity.

Those are the issues on which he spent his political capital, helping change America in the process. I watched with the rest of the world last Tuesday when the president-elect gave his victory speech in Grant Park before some 125,000 people as the nation and world marvelled. I have watched more than a few leaders in other countries do the same, with great consequence for how they govern.

While he helped marshal great forces to get here in victory, Obama had also responded to the financial crisis with great seriousness and thoughtfulness.

In the final debate with John McCain, Obama 11 times used phrases such as “middle class” and “middle income” and “working class” and “working families”. But when I asked my computer to search for the phrase “middle class” in Obama’s victory speech, I quickly got the disconcerting pop-up, “the search item was not found”. Obama made mention of “working men and women”, but only to thank them for their contributions.

Obama’s victory in America creates so much excitement because of the overwhelming desire to change our direction, the war policy and ascendant values, the winds of civil society and the economic crisis. Obama’s extraordinary qualities as a leader bring a sense of possibility in all areas. That was all clear in his speech and he was not shy about the scale of the tasks -— “the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century”.

What will enable America to take on those challenges? Only an America that is not “just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states”, but “the United States of America”, with the emphasis on “united”, and in a new spirit in which we “look after not only ourselves, but each other”.

To define this moment, Obama dwelled on Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, who, at the outset of the civil war, faced a “nation far more divided than ours”.

Just as Lincoln’s party won its historic role by valuing “self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity”, Obama told the nation that our party, having “won a great victory”, will act with “a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back progress”, to great cheers. I do not know where this wondrous night will take President Obama in the years ahead, but I am confident we’ll look back on these words to understand the choices he’ll make in years to come.