Conventional wisdom dictates that Barack Obama was swept into office on the winds of change. History books will surely echo that notion. But while those are sentimentally satisfying explanations for what took place this past November, Obama owes his presidency largely to cold hard cash.
Though the American dollar is now taking a horrific beating in these financial End Times, it's still strong enough to put a man in the Oval Office. In the end, Obama's victory was notable in a number of ways, most obviously because of his race. But in political terms, it was about as conventional as they come.
That's an important distinction, because it tells us a lot about our likely political future. Remember that, at the beginning of this fall campaign, the press fell all over itself proclaiming the Obama operation as the harbinger of a new, realigned type of post-Internet politics — able to mobilize a massive network, mostly of the young, at a moment's notice. Turnout was predicted to set new records.
In reality, turnout was up, but not by much, and the young comprised nearly the same percentage of the vote they always have. As for Obama's decisive victory? It was about what one would expect from any challenger to an incumbent party running in the midst of a recession and the worst economic crisis in a generation.
Still, the Obama campaign did make political history with an unexpected innovation: it brilliantly used the Internet to convert enthusiasm into money. And that helped make Obama the greatest political fundraiser of all time.
Essentially, then, he won the presidency the old-fashioned way, using his vast resources to first wipe out Hillary Clinton and then overwhelm John McCain.
Battle of the bucks
This isn't meant to downplay the significance of his victory. Obama proved that he knows how the game is played, which is no small feat. And, undoubtedly, he captured something: there hasn't been as charismatic a candidate since John F. Kennedy. But as for the notion that he rewrote the political playbook, he really didn't, with the exception, of course, of raising cash.
What Obama did was to end the roughly 30-year period of public financing of presidential elections that began in the mid '70s. By becoming the first candidate to opt out of public funding in a general election — something a Republican candidate would have had far more trouble doing, thanks to press criticism — the Obama forces of various kinds went on to raise and spend around $750 million. That's more than John Kerry and George Bush raised combined in 2004.
That gave Obama more than twice as much money as John McCain, and he used it to outspend the GOP candidate on TV by 7-1 in Indiana, by 4-1 in Virginia, and by 2-1 in Ohio. As a consequence, these states went Democratic — some for the first time in a generation.
Yes, Obama had the best organization on the ground in modern presidential history. But he had it for a very good reason: in addition to all those volunteers, he was able to hire an awful lot of organizers.
All this is relevant in assessing whether Obama's victory actually signals a realignment of our presidential politics. The economic crisis could create a possible opening for an expansion of government and an era of Democratic rule. And now that he's the incumbent, Obama will be able to use the power of the office to help him secure re-election, as all his predecessors have tried to do. (Based on Obama's performance so far, he'll do it very well.)
Still, it's terribly unlikely anyone will ever again have that kind of financial advantage. As Michael Barone pointed out in a recent commentary, one can run to become the first African-American president only once. Next time, the thrill will be gone, or at least diminished.
Should the economic slowdown continue, raising money is going to be much tougher, too, as colleges and charities have already begun to find out. Most important, Obama's fundraising magnetism is unlikely to benefit his Democratic colleagues.
That's why the one path open to the Democrats — at least for the next two years — is to try to change the federal-election laws in a way that benefits their party. It's clear the old rules don't work anymore — only an idiot would take public funding in the future. Yet chances are that the Dems will be afraid to touch the system, now that it appears at first glance to finally benefit them.
The bottom line is that Obama and the circumstances that led to his election this time appear unique. And uniqueness, by definition, isn't transferable. At least, the Republicans better hope that's the case.
To read the "Presidential Tote Board" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.