[Ilya Somin, November 5, 2008 at 12:00am]
For a variety of reasons, I oppose most of Barack Obama's policy agenda and therefore do not welcome his victory. At this moment, however, I think it appropriate to note what I see as three important positives that will result from his triumph.
First and foremost, Obama's victory is an extraordinary milestone in the history of American race relations. Anyone with even slight familiarity with our history of racial oppression can hardly fail to recognize what an important historical moment the election of the first African-American president is. As a constitutional law professor, I have probably spent more time considering that history than most. The history of American constitutional law is to an important extent the history of racist repression and the long struggle to overcome it. As recently as 45 years ago, most American blacks did not even have the right to vote, much less any hope of being elected to the highest office in the land. Just a few decades before that, in the early 1900s, many southern blacks could not even freely change jobs, because of constraints imposed by state peonage laws, about which co-blogger David Bernstein and I have written in some of our academic work. David, of course, is far more expert on the history of racist law than I am, and I am more than happy to agree with what he says in his most recent post.
Obama's victory will not eliminate the vestiges of racism that remain, nor will it solve the problems of the black underclass. But it is an important symbolic moment, and it should help to alleviate racial tensions.
Second, it is clear that Obama's win will improve the image of the United States throughout much of the world. I do not believe that pleasing foreign public opinion should be the be all and end all of American foreign policy. Sometimes, we can and should take unpopular actions. But it would be wrong to assume, as some conservatives have during the Bush Administration, that the good will of foreign publics is irrelevant. Most of our key allies are democracies whose governments are to some degree constrained by public opinion. If that opinion is more favorable to us, it will make our foreign policy objectives easier to achieve because allied governments will be more inclined to cooperate with us.
Finally, Obama is an incredibly talented and charismatic politician. His meteoric rise from being a little-known state senator just four years ago is the most rapid ascent from obscurity to the White House in at least a century, if not longer. Conservatives and libertarians underestimate his competence and political skills at their peril. Just ask his defeated opponents, including Hillary Clinton. Obama's competence and charisma is of course a double-edged sword. Political competence used in the service of a harmful big government agenda could actually make things worse than they would be under a less skillfull leader. For this reason, I cannot be as enthusiastic about Obama's potential for "greatness" as co-blogger David Post.
However, it is fair to say that Obama is unlikely to commit serious mistakes merely because of incompetence or stupidity. If he adopts flawed policies, it will be because of his ideology or because of perverse political incentives that enable him and his party to reap short-term political gains from policies that cause long-run harm. The latter temptation, of course, is far from unique to Obama or the Democrats, as we have had occasion to learn during the years of the Bush Administration. If Obama's election achieves nothing else positive, it can at least help us get to the point where the election of a black president will be viewed as normal, and that president himself judged by the same standards as those applied to other politicians.