The Magazine

Supposing Obama Were a Bipartisan

What then?

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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In August 2004, a then-obscure Illinois state senator delivered a dazzling keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Of special interest, because it departed from the election season's bitter partisanship, was his eloquent insistence on the unity undergirding the nation's great diversity:

There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

As a result of his decisive victory on November 4, Barack Obama will have the opportunity to match deeds to words by governing as president not only of the 53 percent of the electorate who voted for him but of the 47 percent who did not.

It won't be easy. All of his professional and political life, Obama has made his home on the left wing of the Democratic party. And, though to listen to the mainstream media one would think that only John McCain and Sarah Palin played political hardball, Obama's successful campaign was highly partisan, which is natural in the rough and tumble of electioneering, with the highest office in the land on the line.

Nevertheless, when accepting his party's nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, before 80,000 cheering supporters at Denver's Invesco Field, Obama reaffirmed his belief in a common American core beneath respectable partisan differences:

The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America--they have served the United States of America.

Part of America's greatness, Obama rightly observed, is its "promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort." And after the votes had been counted, late on Election Night, in front of a jubilant crowd jammed into Chicago's Grant Park, Obama sounded this theme one more time:

[W]hile the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends    though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn--I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

All Americans should hope that the 44th president of the United States has the courage and sober judgment to honor these solemn commitments.

It is to be expected that Obama will govern as a progressive. But there are measures he could back as president and appointments he could make--consistent with the larger progressive spirit--that would show respect for conservative concerns and accord with principles that, at their best moments, both right and left in America embrace. Here are seven:

(1)   Obama should defend the integrity and independence of the executive branch that he will soon head by resisting calls from congressional Democrats to pursue criminal investigations of Bush administration officials--the foundations for which were laid by hearings conducted last spring by House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers Jr.--for policy decisions they made about how to wage the war on terror. Obama should also speak out forcefully against efforts by European judges who invoke claims of universal jurisdiction to indict Bush administration officials as war criminals. One sure consequence of the criminalization of national security policy differences is the weakening of the office of the president, which, over the long term, will hurt both parties and the nation. Beyond that, the prosecution and imprisonment of defeated or disfavored officials is typical of dictatorships but is incompatible with the peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of democracy.