Changing country sees its reflection in Obama

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama lifts his hand from Abraham Lincoln's Bible at his inauguration, he won't be just the new president of the U.S. He'll be the face of a new era.

He's not the cause of the changing times, either the upheaval in the land or the hunger for something new seen in the million or more faces who'll stream into Washington to watch him take the oath.

Rather, he reflects a new age that's already dawning. It's one marked by sweeping cultural, demographic and economic changes that are promising — or threatening — to tear down the old order and build something new in its place.

A new, more tolerant and pragmatic generation is asserting itself as the one that came of age in the 1960s heads toward retirement. Waves of immigrants are testing whether the country will still be a melting pot producing one society out of different cultures. Minorities, who've always been part of the country's fabric, are racing ever faster toward becoming the majority.

Across the country, Americans feel unsure how they'll survive in an economy first changing from an industrial to an information age, and now threatened by forces that no one seems to fully comprehend or be able to control.

"There are turning points in history," said historian Richard Shenkman of George Mason University. "We are clearly at one of them."

Obama will have a great say in what the new order looks like, making momentous decisions in coming years that will drive the course of history at a pivotal moment and help define the times for good or ill. He may, for example, boost the size and reach of the federal government in ways not seen since World War II or the Great Depression.

He's likely to enjoy a longer political honeymoon and greater leeway to try things, thanks to the country's anxiety and the sense that he's part of a new way of doing things.

"It's not just the financial crisis," Shenkman said. "The politics of the country seem to have shifted. The winds have shifted to favor the Democrats. There are larger forces at work."

Whether Obama succeeds or fails, the country he leads already is different than it was a few decades ago — and will likely be far different by the time he leaves office.

Consider the nation's fast-changing identity.

Immigrants, legal and illegal, have been streaming into this country in numbers nearing the great wave of immigration from the 1890s to the 1920s, which helped transform the nation in what the late historian Robert Wiebe called a "search for order."

Nearly 12 percent of the people in the U.S. today are foreign born, up 356 percent since 1970 and the highest rate since 1920.

Little noticed during the presidential campaign, the Census reported in August that minorities would make up a majority of the country's children by 2023, and a majority of the whole population by 2042. Both milestones will come about a decade faster than previously thought.

The impact on the culture is already profound. So is the impact on politics.

In just the 20 years from 1988 to 2008, the slice of the presidential vote represented by minorities jumped by 11 percentage points. At the same time, the white working-class share dropped by 15 percentage points.

"Those are pretty big shifts. It shows how fast the playing field is changing," said Ruy Teixeira, the author of a groundbreaking book arguing that shifting demographics and the rise of younger, better-educated and more diverse voters are creating a new political landscape more hospitable to Democrats.

It's not just Obama's politics, of course.

As the 47-year-old son of a white mother and black father, he personifies the image these new voters have of themselves and their country.

"He literally straddles the racial divide," Teixeira said. "The new generation can see themselves in him. They're passing the nation to a different type of leader."

If Obama signals what the late John F. Kennedy called the passing of the torch to a new generation, it's one without a stake in the culture wars that started in the 1960s and have punctuated politics ever since.

Unlike his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama came of age after the Vietnam War. He'll never face questions about how or whether he avoided the draft, as they did.

Nor will he dodge questions about use of illegal drugs. Clinton famously said he tried marijuana but didn't inhale. Bush said only that he'd been young and irresponsible. Obama admitted using cocaine when he was younger, and it never became an issue.

"Most of the culture wars are over," said John White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. "The country is basically asking what are the solutions, not what is the culture war."

Another reason the culture war's faded, of course, is that most Americans are focused on the economy.

Many of the familiar moorings of the 20th Century appear to be slipping away.

First, the country moved into a global economy, dropping trade barriers and watching as exports and imports increased, along with an exodus of manufacturing jobs. Even the U.S. auto industry, where Henry Ford helped create the middle class and where generations of Americans found not only jobs but also a future, is threatened.

Then the nation's financial infrastructure seemed to collapse.

For more than two centuries, American leaders have been thrust forward at times of great peril and upheaval. Some were a perfect match for the moment, marshaled the forces at play in the country, and steered the nation through to better times — such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Some fell woefully short and were overrun — James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover and, arguably, George W. Bush.

History will tell whether Obama is up to the task. But either way, he'll make history.

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