Research News

Experts: Obama will move quickly to show he’s ready to govern

Political pundits have time to reflect in the days ahead on the reasons behind Barack Obama’s historic election as the first African American president, but the president-elect must focus immediately on his transition and the challenges ahead, according to several Vanderbilt professors.

The Rev. James Lawson said that Obama must lead the nation to a new and different kind of bipartisanship. “The kind that is committed to animosity and holding up the change that people need must end,” said Lawson, a longtime civil rights and peace activist. “As President-elect Obama has pointed out, this is not the end of the movement but the beginning.”

Omar Ali, an assistant professor in the Department of African American and Diaspora Studies, views the Obama victory as the culmination of decades of African American political struggle in the United States. “Black voters, along with white independents, played a critical role in determining both the Republican and Democratic nominees in 2008,” Ali said.” But last night, Americans of all backgrounds—black, white, Latino, Asian, young and old, Democrat, independent, and Republican—made it clear that the partisanship that rules Washington, D.C., must come to an end.”

Distinguished Professor of Political Science John Geer noted that the election of the first African American as president some 40 years after the start of the Civil Rights Movement is quite amazing, especially for those who remember the 1960s. “Obama’s election shows that our political system, despite its warts and drawbacks, still works,” Geer said. “Obama led an impressive campaign despite strong opposition and negative attacks from within his party during the primaries and later from the GOP.”

Most political scientists were not surprised at the outcome, said Professor of Political Science Bruce Oppenheimer, since they had time throughout the campaign to review and analyze the data. “However, to see the level of enthusiasm that Obama has generated is what has truly stunned the country,” Oppenheimer said.

One of the goals of Obama’s election-night victory speech was making a direct appeal to his supporters to keep alive their enthusiasm for public engagement in the issues, said Vanessa Beasley, an associate professor of communication studies. “There was a huge investment of emotional energy by many voters in the campaign, and he was extending an invitation through his rhetoric on ways that they can remain involved.”

A strong turnout for the Election GameDay activities at The Commons Center indicated widespread interest among Vanderbilt students. The free shuttles from The Commons and Branscomb Quad to Eakin School took 580 students to the polls on Nov. 5. About 200 students took advantage of the shuttles for early voting, according to Lilly Massa-McKinley in the Office of Active Citizenship and Service. Election night at The Commons featured live music performances, a special All-American meal and other fun activities for students watching the returns on big screen television sets. Associate Professor of Political Science Marc Hetherington offered his informed perspective on the significance of the election during talks to students at The Commons and McGill Hall.

While there has been much media focus on how more young people were energized to vote in this election, Christian Grose says it was not only 18 to 29 year olds who turned out in higher numbers this time. “The turnout was huge across all age groups,” said Grose, who has been reviewing the exit poll data. He also pointed out that Obama’s coattails were slightly longer in the South than in other areas of the nation. Overall, the additional seats that Democrats picked up in the House of Representatives tended to be filled with more moderate and conservative Democrats.

How Obama can turn his inspiring rhetoric into achievable goals will be one of the challenges ahead for the 44th president. Professor of Political Science David Lewis, who is an expert on presidential transitions, said it appears that an extremely organized transition effort began several months ago. “I think the intention has been that, given the challenging circumstances both with the economy and foreign affairs, they want to show that they are prepared to govern immediately,” Lewis said. He anticipates announcements about senior White House staff and key Cabinet positions, especially those relating to the economy and national security, in the near future.

Contact: Ann Marie Owens, (615) 322-NEWS