Though Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and the Democrats swept to a decisive victory in Tuesdays election, many questions remain about the future presidential administration, race relations, the American electorate and the Republican brand.
There was a standing ovation as Obamas name was first mentioned in a panel discussion Wednesday on the aftermath of the 2008 election, but panelists and audience members alike questioned what his victory will mean for the future.
The panel consisted of Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter, religion and African-American studies professor Cornel West, Wilson School professor Julian Zelizer and Columbia comparative literature and African-American studies professor Farah Griffin.
Religion and African-American studies professor Eddie Glaude moderated the panel, which was sponsored by the Center for African-American Studies and the Graduate Schools Office of Academic Affairs and Diversity.
The panelists agreed that the coming months will be a test for Obama.
He has to be able to project strength, but also a new kind of humility and posture, Slaughter explained.
Of the trials he could face in the future, Slaughter said that addressing terrorism and national security may be the most difficult.
I expect that Al Qaeda will put him in a position where he has to kill Muslims, she said, explaining that this would force him to walk a fine line between support in the Middle East and the expectations of the American people.
She added that Iran could find this the perfect time to rattle its sabers. Russia, damaged by economic crisis, might also try to stir something up on the Ukrainian border to deflect criticism from its own administration, she noted.
Even without unforeseen foreign policy issues, Obama will have a tough time with the global financial collapse when he takes office, Slaughter said. But beyond that, she explained, he will have difficulty just determining his priorities.
Yes, youve got to address the global financial crisis [first], she said. But after that, the order of issues is unclear, she explained, citing Afghanistan, Iraq, climate change and nuclear proliferation as issues that could easily dominate Obamas priorities.
West challenged the president-elect to move from symbol to substance and said he hoped that Obama would elevate himself above his larger-than-life campaign to bring about real change.
Will Obamas presidency provide the opportunity to pursue a deep, democratic vision of social economic revival and justice worldwide? Griffin added.
She said she was unsure if such a change was imminent but added that public involvement will be crucial to progress.
Griffin praised the revolutionary wave of political activism that this election generated. But, she asked, How do we maintain that level of interest, that level of excitement and that level of involvement?
Zelizer said that Obama could maintain public involvement in his administration through the vast phone banks he has amassed during his campaign, which could be used to mobilize citizens to support legislation. He also said that the Republicans running one of their worst campaigns was just as responsible for Obamas victory as the Democrats well-run campaign.
Zelizer said there is a crisis of conservatism brewing, brought on by the unpopularity of President George Bush, disunity among Republicans and the failure of the ideology of low taxes and deregulation.
Race and its effects
Another issue raised by Griffin was how Obamas victory will affect race relations in the United States.
Therewill be a white backlash, West said. You dont move into an era with a black man in the White House without there being various forms of white backlash.
West said that he was impressed by the grace of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.s concession speech, in which he called Obama my president.
West called on McCain to continue his support of Obama to keep a backlash at bay. Conservatives, try to tame your xenophobes, he said.
The panelists also debated the general importance of race for the election and the future.
We have been disempowered by the discourse of colorblindness and post-racial, West said.
Slaughter, however, disagreed.
We have to push back on this being a story all about race, she said, though she explained that she did not believe America was post-racial, adding that she expected the next generation to think differently about race.