When Marion Orr was in middle school, ABC News hired Max Robinson as the first African-American television news anchor. Every day, Orr left the playground at 6 p.m. so he could hear Robinson on the news.
Though he tuned in just to see Robinson, he began to absorb the information the anchor delivered. Now, the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy credits ABC's hiring of Robinson for his interest in politics and current position at Brown.
Orr, who is black, told this personal story while moderating a panel discussion with members of the Department of Political Science yesterday about President-elect Barack Obama's success - and what it means for the future.
Assistant Professor Jennifer Lawless, Associate Professor Wendy Schiller and Department Chair Professor James Morone presented their views on the significance of last week's election and took questions from a MacMillan 117 audience of mostly students.
For African-American children today, Orr said, seeing the Obama family in the White House is "the most powerful symbol." But he posited that the victory is more than just imagery and will change the future of politics.
Morone talked about the role of race in the United States and mentioned a question he raises in his classes annually: Are troubled race relations an anomaly in America or inherent in its societal structure? The question was always rhetorical for him, he said, since he believed racism was an ingrained problem.
Fifty-two percent of the population voted for Barack Obama, but 67 percent said they were proud of what happened, according to Morone. Those numbers show that something is changing now, he added.
Turning his attention to the future of party politics, Morone said the challenge lies in how each party brands itself. The Republicans can no longer revert to the Reagan platform, despite how well the brand once worked, he said. Democrats, on the other hand, lost their brand in 1968. The disadvantage of being in power is that they will now have to "articulate what they stand for and what it means."
Lawless said she was speaking without notes or Morone's optimism. She said it is unclear that a liberal tide swept the nation. Given the economy and the current administration, the Democrats "really had an election they were going to win."
Voters demonstrated a "clear need for change at the presidential level," she said. She cited a lower than expected swing of House seats - many of which were won by "pseudo-Democrats" - and the passage of ballot measures preventing gay marriage.
Despite Obama's win, the gains for other traditionally marginalized groups were less obvious, she said, adding that women fared "horribly."
She added that turnout results demonstrate that Americans have not gotten past the Bradley effect - the idea that voters lie to pollsters so as not to seem racist.
"Race, gender, class and liberalism are not going in the direction I'd like them to," she said.
Schiller also acknowledged the role President Bush's low approval ratings played in this election. She said voters felt the government was no longer working for them and lacked accountability.
Obama's biggest challenge as president, she said, will be balancing three key groups: a very eager liberal wing, a skeptical moderate wing that voted for him and a skeptical conservative wing that did not.
"Every move he makes will be interpreted more and more than any other president," she said. Though Obama's race does make his victory unprecedented, she said, "it goes beyond that."
Schiller attributed the lack of a trickle-down effect in part to an ineffectual Congress that did not follow through on its 2006 campaign promises. She added that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was seen as "hyper-partisan and hyper-liberal," which cost the Democrats elections.
One student asked why none of the panelists even mentioned Sen. John McCain.
Morone called him "a man at war with his own campaign" and said he was "prepped to say things he didn't believe."
Lawless referenced Newsweek's expose of the two campaigns and said that McCain ran a "passive-aggressive" campaign, while Obama's was far more disciplined.
Morone called him an honorable person, however, and Lawless said it would be hard to imagine how any Republican candidate could have gotten more than 47 percent of the vote.
Many students asked about what this election means for the future, both in terms of Obama's presidency and future elections.
Regarding diversity on the cabinet, Lawless said every president has a responsibility and cannot do less than the president before. She noted that few women have been placed on short lists, though.
All of the panelists agreed that Hillary Clinton will make a career of the Senate - where she will gain influence in the fashion of Sen. Ted Kennedy - rather than take a position in Obama's administration.
Asked about the role of the vice presidential candidate in this election, Lawless said, "the Palin pick means (future) candidates won't take risks" with the first large decision they have to make.
A student asked what would happen if Obama fails, especially for the youngest generation of voters.
"There will be failures," Morone said. "What's really important is young generations getting involved and staying involved. That's what makes democracy vital and a generation powerful."