The Politics of Hope

“The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose.”
– President Barack Obama, 2009


Having served two terms, President George W. Bush was constitutionally prohibited from being elected again to the presidency. After a spirited preconvention campaign, the Republicans chose as their candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona. A Vietnam veteran respected for his heroic resistance as a prisoner of war, McCain possessed strong foreign policy credentials and was a relatively moderate conservative on domestic issues. He chose as his running mate Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Much admired by Christian evangelicals and cultural conservatives, she drew almost as much attention as McCain himself.

In late 2007, it seemed nearly certain that the Democratic nomination would go to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. The wife of former president Bill Clinton, she had quickly established herself as a leading member of Congress and possessed a strong national constituency among women and liberal Democrats. However, she faced a phenomenon not unusual in democratic societies — a relatively unknown, but charismatic, challenger whose appeal rested not on ideological or programmatic differences but on style and personal background.

Barack Hussein Obama was only in his second year as a U.S. senator from Illinois, but his comparative youth and freshness were assets in a year when the electorate was weary of politics as usual. So was his multicultural background. He was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961, to a Kenyan father studying at the University of Hawaii and a white mother originally from a small town in Kansas. In 1963, the senior Obama left his new family to pursue graduate study at Harvard and later to return to Kenya. When Obama was six his mother remarried and relocated to Indonesia, where Obama briefly attended a Muslim school. He eventually returned to Hawaii, living with his maternal grandparents while he attended a private U.S. high school. He went on to study at two of the best universities in the United States — Columbia and Harvard. His personal style mixed a rare speaking talent with a hip informality that had great appeal to younger voters. Americans of all ages could consider him an emblematic representative of their society’s tradition of providing opportunity for all.

After a close, hard-fought six months of party caucuses and primary elections, Obama eked out a narrow victory over Clinton. He made Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware his vice-presidential selection. Most measures of popular sentiment indicated that the public wanted a change. The two candidates began the fall campaign season as strong favorites.

Any chance that McCain and Palin could pull ahead was ended by the sharp financial crisis that began in the last half of September and sent the economy crashing. Caused by excessive speculation in risky mortgage-backed securities and other unstable investments, the crash led to the bankruptcy of the venerable Lehman Brothers investment house and momentarily imperiled the entire financial superstructure of the nation. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), created during the New Deal, shut down numerous banks without loss to depositors, but had no jurisdiction over the giant financial investment companies that did not engage in commercial banking. Moreover, it had only limited capabilities to deal with those corporations that did both.

Fearing a general financial meltdown reminiscent of the darkest days of the Great Depression, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve engineered a Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) that was funded by a $700 billion congressional appropriation. The TARP program kept the endangered investment banks afloat. What it could not do was stave off a sharp economic collapse in which millions of U.S. workers lost their jobs.

That November, the voters elected Obama president of the United States, with approximately 53 percent of the vote to McCain’s 46.


Obama was inaugurated president of the United States on January 20, 2009, in an atmosphere of hope and high expectations. In his inaugural address, he declared: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” He proclaimed an agenda of “remaking America” by reviving and transforming the economy in ways that would provide better and less-expensive health care for all, foster environmentally friendly energy, and develop an educational system better suited to the needs of a new century.

Speaking to the international community, he pledged U.S. cooperation in facing the problem of global warming. He also delivered a general message of international engagement based on compassion for poorer, developing countries and respect for other cultures. To Muslims around the world he said, “We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

The speech revealed the wide scope of Obama’s aspirations. His rhetoric and his strong personal presence won wide approval — so much so that in October, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his goals. But, as always in the complex system of American representative government, it was easier to state large ambitions than to realize them.

At home, the administration addressed the mounting economic crisis with a $787 billion stimulus act designed to bring growing unemployment down to manageable levels. The legislation doubtless saved or created many jobs, but it failed to prevent unemployment — officially estimated at 7.7 percent of the labor force when Obama took office — from increasing to a high of 10.1 percent, then receding just a bit. The loans to large investment and commercial banks begun during the Bush administration with the objective of restoring a stable financial system were mostly repaid with a profit to the government, but a few remained outstanding as the president began his second year in office. In addition, the government invested heavily in two giant auto makers — General Motors and Chrysler — shepherding them through bankruptcy and attempting to reestablish them as major manufacturers.

Obama’s other major objective — the establishment of a national health care system — had long been a goal of American liberalism. With large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, it seemed achievable. However, developing a plan that had to meet the medical needs of more than 300 million Americans proved extraordinarily difficult. The concerns of numerous interests had to be dealt with — insurance companies, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and the large majority of Americans who were already covered and reasonably satisfied. In addition, a comprehensive national plan had to find some way to control skyrocketing costs. In the spring of 2010, the president signed complex legislation that mandated health insurance for every American, with implementation to take place over several years.

In foreign policy, Obama sought to reach out to the non-Western world, and especially to Muslims who might interpret the American military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a general war on Islam. “America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition,” he told an audience at Cairo University. In Tokyo, he reassured Asians that America would remain engaged with the world’s fastest-growing region. While hoping to distinguish itself in tone from the Bush administration, the Obama government found itself following the broad outlines of Bush’s War on Terror. It affirmed the existing agreement to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 2011 and reluctantly accepted military plans for a surge in Afghanistan. In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama quoted the celebrated American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to the effect that evil existed in the world and could be defeated only by force.

At the conclusion of his first year in office, Obama remained, for many Americans, a compelling personification of their country’s ideals of liberty and equal opportunity.