Most presidential elections do not fundamentally alter the American political landscape. Even when the party in power changes, the basic assumptions governing policy generally remain the same. But in a few critical elections, the advent of a new president is a transformative moment that reshapes American public life for a generation or more.
Thomas Jefferson's victory in 1800 was a deathblow to the Federalist Party and its goal of wedding the young Republic to the interests of its financial and mercantile elite. The election of 1828 ushered in the era of Jacksonian democracy, which far outlived its namesake's eight years in office. Lincoln's election in 1860 marked the end of slaveholder control of the federal government. McKinley's in 1896 created a Republican majority that lasted (with an interruption by Woodrow Wilson) until the Great Depression. The political alignments and attitudes toward public policy brought into being by Franklin D. Roosevelt after his victory in 1932 persisted into the 1960s. And Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 opened an era of deregulation, deindustrialization, anti-unionism, and the militarization of foreign policy - norms that the three presidents who followed did little to change.
Future historians may well view Barack Obama's victory as another of these critical elections, the end of the age of Reagan and the beginning of something substantially new. This is not primarily because of his race, although in view of our tortured racial history the election of the first black president indeed represents a watershed. Nor does it arise from the decisive nature of his victory - Jefferson had an extremely narrow margin and Lincoln received only 40 percent of the popular vote. Some landslides, like Eisenhower's in 1952 and 1956, do not mark the advent of a fresh political paradigm. Obama's opportunity rests above all on the fact that his victory arises from a powerful popular desire for change after one of the most disastrous administrations in American history and the wreckage of the ideology that has guided American politics since 1980. Perhaps the end of Reaganism came two weeks ago when Alan Greenspan, the high priest of deregulation during his years as Federal Reserve chairman, admitted that market fundamentalism had failed.
With its widespread use of today's technology - the Internet, cellphones, text messages - and its massive mobilization of first-time voters, the 2008 campaign will be viewed by future historians as a 21st century prototype. In his personal ancestry, Obama embodies recent social changes that point the way to tomorrow's America - a nation where the old black-white template has given way to a reconfigured landscape of race.
Obama has the bad luck to come to power in the midst of an economic crisis. He has the good luck to do so in a country yearning for strong leadership and a renewed sense of political possibility. No president can perform miracles. But if, like his most successful predecessors, Obama seizes the occasion by striking out boldly, articulating forcefully a new philosophy of governing at home and relating to the rest of the world, we will add 2008 to the very short list of elections that have truly transformed American life.