WASHINGTON -- The social coalition put together by Barack Obama signifies a political realignment that may well have replaced the one that started with Richard Nixon, reached its zenith with Ronald Reagan and appears to have expired with George W. Bush. Whether Obama's coalition is long-lasting or ephemeral will depend on how he himself interprets it. The consensus seems to be that Obama's diverse supporters, as Harold Meyerson recently put it in The Washington Post, expect their leader to "implement a 21st-century version of Franklin Roosevelt's reforms." I am not so sure.
The Obama coalition is made up of minorities, white professionals, students and a substantial number of white middle-class voters, especially women.
Minorities backed Obama in staggeringly high numbers. It follows that, in the case of blacks, the coalition includes a significant number of middle-class African Americans with scant connection to Lyndon Johnson's minority-oriented welfare programs; in the case of Hispanics, it includes many of those conservative-leaning Latinos who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 but were recently alienated by the GOP's immigration phobia.
There is no reason to believe that white professionals who voted for Obama are in favor of European-style socialism either. Most of them hold jobs in industries that already are highly regulated and taxed. Theirs is probably a reaction against the anti-intellectual populism of the wing of the Republican Party that dictated government policy in recent years and against the excessive intrusion of religion into politics, particularly regarding social issues.
Finally, that Obama was able to draw such a big portion of the white middle-class vote, particularly "Wal-Mart moms," indicates that a longing for economic security was a driving force of the Democrat's success--a sentiment that cuts across all the groups that make up the coalition.
Just like in 1932, when Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover, many of Obama's voters feel that the government failed to protect them in the face of uncertainty. The instinct for government protection--from competition abroad, from the loss of real estate value and from the perils of old age at a time when the Social Security entitlement seems in peril--is strong in today's America. But this fear has existed for quite some time, and for many months it was not enough to give Obama a commanding lead against John McCain--until the financial crisis hit home.
Once it did, many new voters seem to have flocked to Obama's coalition out of a combination of disgust at the Bush administration and fear of the future--all of which made them more comfortable with the Democrat's proposals that a few weeks earlier were meeting with a great deal of skepticism. It is safe to assume that even among Obama's voters, then, there is still an undercurrent of healthy distrust in the notion that European-style socialism is a solution to America's recession and difficult adaptation to today's global society--a reason, incidentally, why Obama himself kept talking about "better" rather than "bigger" government.
Government has been growing at a rate of over 13 percent a year, the national debt has doubled in the last eight years and the fiscal deficit is approaching $500 billion. Add to those fundamental imbalances the policies of easy money implemented by the Federal Reserve and of encouraging lenders to hand out loans to people who could not pay them and you get a pretty good sense of where the origin of today's economic problems lies.
Obama will need to bear all of this in mind in the years ahead as he comes under pressure from some factions of the Democratic Party hoping to translate his mandate into a Rooseveltian expansion of government. Such an expansion would severely undermine America's ability to compete in the global marketplace, and the impressive coalition that he has put together would not last his administration.
During the course of his campaign, Obama was able to win the respect, and in some cases the endorsement, of a number of free-market conservatives who are rebelling against what they see as the populist, insular mentality of the dominant wing of the GOP. Most of them indicated that they saw in Obama's cool judgment, his self-made success, and his distrust of identity politics someone who would not succumb to the siren song of his own party's socialist wing. Let us hope that this is so.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, senior fellow at the Independent Institute, is editor of Lessons from the Poor.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa