At some point in the evening, before all definitive results lit the electoral maps, television viewers across America understood that Barack Obama would be the 44th president and that Democrats would hold greater majorities in both the House and Senate. Now, the real work starts.
Sure, there were some surprises during the election. But it was no surprise that Republicans did poorly among African-Americans, whose surge of pride and participation was reminiscent of Catholics' embrace of John F. Kennedy. But with a poor performance among Hispanics, suburbanites and young adults, it is hard to see how Republicans can rebuild a national majority based only on older small-town and rural white voters.
Likewise, how can Republicans regain momentum with their current stances on immigration, the environment, and cultural issues? The party needs a period of self-examination and change akin to the Democrats' struggle to reinvent themselves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The party's hearty embrace of Sarah Palin as its future champion does not bode well for its ability to change.
That Democrats now command a unified government for the first time since the catastrophic mid-term defeat of 1994 should flash strong warning signs to party leaders. The Clinton administration and congressional Democrats' failure to form an effective coalition around a common agenda led to a series of divisive votes -- on the budget, trade, and crime, among others -- and to the failure of the administration's ambitious health care initiative.
This time, the president-elect and congressional leaders have only a few weeks to make key decisions -- about overall spending levels, tax relief and legislative priorities -- before the new Obama administration submits its first budget. Much depends on their ability to coalesce around a set of promises that can be met before voters rethink in 2010. Tugging at their heels is the enormous burden of the financial rescue plan and a second stimulus package, which together may shoot the federal budget deficit to $1 trillion or beyond.
The battle of analogies will abound. Some Democrats will argue that 2009 is a lot like 1933, with an economic meltdown making the people eager for more government across the board. Others will say that it's more like 1965, when large Democratic majorities broke a decades-long logjam and enacted a broad progressive agenda. Still others will argue for an analogy with 1993, when the people rejected the status quo without quite endorsing the alternative to it, in a context of deep mistrust of government as an honorable and effective instrument of public purpose.
We can bring some data to bear on this dispute. According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 43 percent of Americans favor a bigger government offering more services versus 42 percent who favor a smaller government with fewer services. Support for smaller government is way down from its recent peak in the mid-1990s, and also from five years ago.
But support for larger government has not budged: 42 percent in November 2003, 43 percent in January 2007, 42 percent in November 2007 and 43 percent today. President Obama and congressional Democrats cannot assume that the rejection of conservative economics implies an endorsement of the liberal alternative.
On the critical issue of government's role, Democrats do not have a mandate. Rather, they have a chance to make their case. And they must do so at a time when public trust in government is at a historic low. This suggests that a step-by-step process of rebuilding public confidence in our governing institutions is likely to produce better, more sustainable results than would any effort to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson.