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Panelists reflect on Obama’s significance

Published: November 7, 2008
Section: Front Page

THE MORNING AFTER: Prof. Joseph considers the meaning of an Obama presidency.

THE MORNING AFTER: Prof. Joseph considers the meaning of an Obama presidency.

PHOTO BY Napolean Lherisson/The Hoot

At an event last night co-sponsored by the Student Union and the Office of Communications, faculty panelists commented on the significance of Tuesday’s election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

The panel, which was moderated by National Public Radio defense commentator Guy Raz ’96, included Prof. Peniel Joseph (AAAS), Prof. John Ballantine Jr. (IBS), Prof. Mingus Mapps (AAAS), and Prof. Jill Greenlee (POL).

In his opening remarks, Raz put the panel into perspective, calling this election “probably the most historic election in America’s 232 years.”

He went on to note that although when he was a student at Brandeis, President Bill Clinton’s inauguration was a “transformational moment,” this election was “incomparable…simply by virtue of what [Obama] managed to accomplish.”

On that note, Joseph began the discussion by describing Obama’s election as “a culmination of an almost 150 year history,” which, he said, began with the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Still, while minorities were able to attain elected office, the “era of Klan violence,” “domestic terrorism,” and the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling forced African Americans out of such jobs, with the last African American leader leaving office in 1901. At that point, the North Carolina legislature passed a “resolution of joy.”

To Joseph, Obama’s election “represents the evolution of Black politics,” representing the beginning of a time when “there is a chance for Black politicians to win.”

Ballantine spoke next, calling Tuesday “an incredible election.” As an economist, he focused his talk on issues relating to the economy, noting that Obama represents a change from the supply-side economic theories touted by President Ronald Reagan. He explained, though, that the challenges that Obama has to face to meet his goals are enormous, considering that a “brutal” recession has set in and may get worse.

Nevertheless, Ballantine noted that, in his opinion, “Obama has shown a level of leadership [and] maturity” needed to deal with these economic issues.

The third speaker, Mapps, crunched numbers for the audience to help explain the significance of the election. In the primary election, Mapps showed that African American voters overwhelmingly supported Obama (even considering, as he noted, that the pundits had questioned if Obama was “black enough” to win over such voters). He also showed that white women supported Hillary Clinton, Hispanic voters supported Clinton, and white men were mixed in their support of Clinton and Obama.

Then, in the general election, African Americans again supported Obama (by a landslide), white women and white men were mixed in their support of Senators John McCain and Obama, and Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

Mapps explained the significance, both positive and negative, of these statistics. This showed that while voters did not vote based on race (but more so, based on gender), voters still organized along racial lines. To Mapps, this fact remains “one of the critical puzzles of this campaign.”

Finally, Greenlee addressed the lessons of this election in terms of age and gender. Also presenting data to backup her points, Greenlee showed that Sarah Palin failed to affect the female vote, and that in this election, just as in most since 1980, a majority of women supported the Democratic ticket.

As to age, Greenlee demonstrated that the youth vote rose by 2.2 million people since the last election, calling that rise “a pretty good increase.” She also pointed out that 66% of young people supported Obama as opposed to 31% who supported McCain, representing a historic 35 point gap in the young vote. The youth vote, her data showed, had not been split as much in the last election, where there was a 9 point gap. (In fact, the largest gap she reported was 19 points, which occurred in the elections of Reagan and Clinton).

Greenlee explained this outcome by citing the fact that Obama “was a young guy,” and “he was a cool guy.” “He represents a lot of change and a lot of energy, that appeals to young people,” she said.

At the end of the conversation, Raz, along with other audience members, asked questions of the panelists. One question asked whether Obama could have won had President George Bush not been in office, which elicited interest in the audience. Joseph said, “I disagree with that notion,” arguing that Obama represented less of a candidate of ‘last resort,’ and more of a “positive affirmation” in a different set of political values.

“Is this going to last?” he asked. “We are going to have to wait and see.”