Re-Uniting The United States: A Last Look At The Election

No matter whether one’s candidate of choice won or lost this past Tuesday, there was an almost tangible sense of relief in the air– the long and stressful presidential campaign was finally over.

From the very earliest days of the Republican primaries through the final frenetic campaign stops in all the key battleground states, President Obama and Governor Romney went toe to toe and mano a mano, in an effort to sway the minds of those few Americans who remained undecided until the very last possible moment.

This election presented Americans with a clear choice between two very different political philosophies, approaches to government, and to America itself. The people have spoken. The battle is over. President Obama has been given another four years within which to work on the serious and recalcitrant problems facing our nation. And whether one agrees with his approach or disagrees, reasonable people of both political parties will, hopefully, speak to their representatives in Washington and impress upon them the importance of working together for the betterment of America as a whole.

Saying that is easy. Accomplishing it is something else entirely. Personally, I thought that Governor Romney’s concession speech was gracious, and exactly what the moment called for.

I have heard it said by more than a few people that America is hopelessly divided. One need only look at the popular vote tallies from this election to see how relatively small the margin of victory was, despite the rather impressive Electoral College victory that the President enjoyed. The Electoral College map shows the stark divide between the red states and the blue states in graphic detail for all to see. To the naked eye, it is almost as if we two countries, with two different populations occupying different sections of the same space.

In this new term about to begin, there are a number of important initiatives that President Obama needs to be tending to. The so-called “fiscal cliff” that threatens to throw us headlong into another recession needs to be avoided before the end of this calendar year. We need to successfully extricate ourselves from Afghanistan, where our troops are dying at a rate of approximately one a day, for no apparent worthwhile purpose. There will undoubtedly be Supreme Court vacancies to be filled, the precarious state of entitlement programs needs to once and for all be dealt with… and that’s just a few.

But I would suggest that the single greatest challenge that President Obama faces– and one that he must tackle head on– is the aforementioned sense that America is a country, to use a metaphor from the Civil War, divided against itself. As the President himself said after his first election victory, and repeated just the other night after his second victory was secured, we are not a country of red states and blue states. We are the United States of America, and need to transcend the overwhelming temptation to allow our political differences to paint those with whom we differ as “the other.”

The former governor of the State of New York, the honorable Mario Cuomo, once famously commented, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” He was, of course, alluding to an important truth. Campaigning allows a candidate to play the role of visionary and dreamer, as opposed to a real-time politician who has to deal with the nitty-gritty details of governing.

I cannot recall a candidate in my lifetime who more successfully campaigned in poetry than Barack Obama did in 2008. Listening to him speak about hope and change, and the America that he wanted to help create, was in and of itself a great and exhilarating experience.

I am a professional speaker myself, and I have long enjoyed seeing and hearing great speakers grab the attention of a room and hold it in a grip like a vise. It is a gift not given to many. A friend once urged me to watch a particular speech that Obama the candidate had delivered, because I was skeptical of this young newcomer, and I told her that I would. After watching it, I called her up and told her that I believed he would be the next president. He was just that good. No– he was just that great. He was a perfect candidate.

But though I supported him then and voted for him again now, I would be the first to say that, once the campaign was over in 2008 and he took over the reins of government, he was true to Mario Cuomo’s insight. He governed in prose– big time. He seemed to lose the ability to lift himself and those around him to a higher level, so as to see the banal and frustrating details of government from a broader perspective. The promise that he embodied, and the ability that lay behind the promise, was severely compromised by the loss of poetry, and the seemingly total surrender to prose.

Now that the President has been entrusted with a second term, my prayer for him– and for our country– is that he reclaim and hold on to the poetry that he displayed in his wonderful acceptance speech. Our country needs to be healed. It’s not just a matter of saying that we are the United States as opposed to the red and blue states. It is about making people believe that, and feel it. That is the President’s real challenge as he begins his second term.

Americans of all parties and political persuasions need him to succeed. Lift us up, Mr. President. We are looking to be lifted, and led. This is your moment.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.