The Obama Phenomenon

Three months after his election, President Barack Obama continues to remake the political landscape—and there’s no clearer example than Friday’s election of Michael Steele as the Republican National Committee's first black chairman.

It took the election of the nation’s first African-American president, one who won landslide margins among blacks, Latinos and Asians, to convince Republicans of the party’s increasingly urgent need to expand its appeal beyond its overwhelmingly white base. And it was Obama’s ability to produce emotive rhetoric on cue that reminded the GOP of the power of a forceful communicator.

“Clearly Obama’s success contributed to Steele’s victory,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who served two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Had Obama not won, I can’t imagine the Republicans would have elected an African-American chairman.”

Obama’s historic presidency, the way in which he won and the scale of the crises he inherits have scrambled some of the underlying assumptions about American elections and politics and altered the laws of political logic.

"Barack Obama's a phenomenon,” said California Republican Committeeman Shawn Steel after Friday’s election. “It's going to take a phenomenon just to challenge him. Michael is the one guy we have, regardless of background, who can do that."

Call it the Obama phenomenon.

The architecture of Obama’s presidential victory has already led to a rethinking of the electoral map. By winning nine states carried by George W. Bush, he ended the notion of electoral map determinism, the dominant presidential election narrative for close to two decades.

Even the Solid South isn’t so solid anymore, as Obama carried Virginia and North Carolina and nearly won in Georgia.

In many states, a corollary to the widely-held opinion that a black man couldn’t win the presidency was that an African-American couldn’t win statewide either. But following Obama’s win, that notion is being challenged by pols including Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who is leaving a safe, majority black House seat to run for Florida’s open Senate seat in 2010.

“The idea that an African-American can’t win statewide in Pennsylvania is no longer the assumption,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney, who notes that former professional football player Franco Harris is suddenly viewed as a very attractive prospective Senate candidate. “The evolution in politics has been so quick and profound over the past 18-24 months.”

Political analyst Charlie Cook, publisher of the influential Cook Political Report, is skeptical of the notion that Obama is somehow rewriting the rules.

“There’s not a lot new that the Obama campaign did. They just did things better and took them to a higher level. Had you not had Dean, you would not have had Kerry. And if not Kerry, then you wouldn’t have Obama.”

Obama’s effect on the nation’s political landscape, he says, “was evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

Still, even in Washington some of the longstanding rules of engagement appear to be in the process of being rewritten.

Political imperatives once led President Bill Clinton to declare that the era of big government is over. Suddenly, it’s not.

Polls even suggest that regulation-averse voters embrace the prospect of a sweeping Obama administration overhaul of the nation’s financial regulatory system.

Then there is the experience of Timothy Geithner, the recently-confirmed Treasury Secretary. The old political rules governing Cabinet-level nominees — particularly those charged with overseeing the Internal Revenue Service — dictate that failure to pay more than $34,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes would be a fatal blow to confirmation prospects.

This time, it wasn’t. The administration dismissed the news as an honest mistake, and Geithner was confirmed by a 60-34 vote. Former Senator Tom Daschle, Obama’s nominee for Health and Human Services, looks likely to also win confirmation, despite a $100,000-plus back tax bill for a car and driver provided by a wealthy friend. That, too, was an honest mistake, according to the administration, which is understandably taking full advantage of an unlikely new dynamic in which that claim holds water.

It's too early to tell whether all of this signals a rulebook that is in the midst of being rewritten—or just a fleeting moment caused by the euphoria surrounding the history-making nature of Obama's win.

“Politics in this country has changed,” says Frost. “But the pendulum swings in this country. I don’t think you can say the politics have changed permanently.”

As evidence of that, Rooney offers an alternative assessment of the meaning of Michael Steele's victory over four other candidates for RNC chairman.

"You could also make the case that he was the least crazy of all of them."

Alexander Burns contributed to this report.

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