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“Yes we did.”
Since Sen. Barack Obama’s win last Tuesday, this modified campaign slogan has graced signs at rallies, g-chat statuses, and more than one newspaper headline. I’m all for clever turns of phrase, but this particular quip reveals a misguided attitude shared by many Obama supporters.
Yes, we did…what? The only answer can be “win an election.” But I hardly think that Obama’s mantra of “Yes We Can” referred only to trouncing Sen. John McCain. He meant that, yes, we can—if you’ll forgive the talking point—bring change to government. That work hasn’t even begun yet, and its success is far from certain. Last Tuesday was never going to fix the problems of the past eight years, but most of us seem to equate his victory with real change just the same.
In no way do I mean to diminish last week’s accomplishment. Obama succeeded in energizing millions of new voters. It is a towering achievement for an African-American to be elected president; heck, it is a towering achievement for a Democrat to be elected president. There is plenty of reason to celebrate and, after such a long campaign, to feel a sense of contented closure.
But language is a powerful thing. The more we speak in the past tense, the more we feel as though our effort has ended. As president, Obama will need the coalition that elected him to help craft his version of good government. Democrats made tremendous strides with this campaign, but, if Obama voters tune out, the electoral landscape could shift back toward polarization and conservatism. Obama’s promises of health-care reform, economic recovery, and tactful foreign policy hang in the balance.
“Yes we did” is but one example; take The New York Times, which, in its euphoria, claimed that Obama’s election broke “the last racial barrier in American politics.” To be sure, it was momentous, but we are not past the problem of race in Washington. When it comes to race, gender, and other areas, government continues to be diversity-deficient. As long as the country remains hesitant to elect Latinos, Arab-Americans, or others, we will never be able to declare that we have broken that last racial barrier—indeed, the election of an African-American to the White House can really only represent the first. We must build on its momentum, not lend it a language of finality.
There are already signs that an Obama win is no cure-all. Banners that proclaim “Yes we did” ignore part of Obama’s constituency that still has its work cut out for it: the BGLT community. On Tuesday, while Californians and Floridians checked one box for Obama, they checked another to ban same-sex marriage. A new Democratic regime can institute progressive policies, but that won’t change conservative attitudes that are still alive and well. Just as everyday volunteers convinced the nation it was time to elect Obama, they must promote acceptance of views that are currently disdained as “liberal” by many Americans. Cries of “Yes we did” make it too easy to forget the groups and causes that continue to struggle.
In short, yes, we did nothing except get our foot in the door. That was a huge first step, but now we must make good on our ability to make America more tolerant and its policies more sensible. After round after round of defeat, it’s tempting for Democrats to consider an electoral victory their ultimate achievement. Instead, it is a means to an end. Like it or not, there is more hard work on the horizon, and President Obama will need all the help he can get.
Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Cabot House.
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