Curb Your Enthusiasm
A snapshot of a snapshot, from fivethirtyeight.com:
Barack Obama's probably going to win this thing. You don't want to get overconfident--and I know the campaign is still busting its ass, precisely to guard against overconfidence--and there's still enough time for things to flip again. But if there's any glimmer of hope out there for the Republicans, I don't see it right now. And not only is Obama looking poised to rack up the biggest win for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide (which is actually pretty faint praise), but the Democratic congressional majorities are likely to swell to something like 260-265 seats in the House and 58-60 seats in the Senate. The butterscotch and whipped cream atop this sundae of partisan delight is that not only will this be the biggest Democratic majority in four decades, but as I wrote the other day, this is going to be the most ideologically coherent Democratic majority the country has ever seen. And Obama himself is pretty clearly thinking about not just how to win, but how to govern.
Yet I'm worried. Not about the election, for all the reasons noted above and more, but about the governing. And it's not Obama, whom I think does have the right temperament for the times and a good sense for how much change, how quickly, the public and the power centers can accommodate; or the Democratic leaders in Congress, who probably will be reasonable in their demands on the new president... at least for awhile. Most of these folks, on both sides, have a decent awareness of how badly the Democrats screwed this unified-power thing up sixteen years ago, and likely will put those lessons to good use.
No, I'm worried about us. The big mass of Obama supporters out there, and (maybe more to the point) the policy analysts and advocates who have been waiting so long for this moment. Recently when speaking with colleagues, I've noticed this gleam in their eyes when they talk about the next administration--how, at long last, "we" are going to get a real hearing, and very possibly support and resources, for this or that worthwhile cause. That just seems like a huge setup for disappointment. Yes, there's going to be some stimulus, as virtually everyone agrees there should be, and probably most of the measures supported will be worthwhile. But neither money nor attention nor time is limitless, and Obama and his congressional allies are going to disappoint us. Maybe again and again.
Every leader does. And beyond the relatively small community of policy obsessives, how deeply the disillusionment cuts the first time an Obama administration official is caught lying or stealing, or the new president makes a bad decision, will be telling. Right now you can't turn your head on the New York City subway without seeing Obama buttons, t-shirts, hats, stickers. I'd be very comfortable betting that six months from now, virtually all of those things will be buried in drawers or closets. Everybody just wants to win this thing--to push aside the dismal Bush years with the most non-Bush alternative practically imaginable. But as any Phillies fan can tell you, things change when you win; your expectations go up, and you get cranky when the stars don't align.
Maybe I'm mindful of this because just two years ago, we were in the same place--not so much with the congressional Democrats, who seemed likely to retake the House but were still going to be facing an intransigent Bush, but with Eliot Spitzer, about to roll to a record landslide win in the New York gubernatorial contest. We all know how that ended, but even before Spitzer was caught cavorting with a hooker who thought he was the governor of New Jersey (true story), he'd squandered his goodwill and much of his popularity with an awkward, ineffectual first year. Spitzer had run on the slogan, "On Day One, Everything Changes." Very little did, and relatively little would have even if Spitzer had been as deft and prudent as I believe Obama will be. He's got to find a way to temper expectations without tempering excitement and optimism--or else those feelings are likely to curdle into disillusionment, and we'll have gone much too far toward squandering this opportunity.