WASHINGTON -- The Capitol Steps, an ensemble that entertains Washington with political satire that often is indistinguishable from the news, begins its current show with a public address announcement advising the audience to note where the auditorium's exits are. But "in the event of an emergency, please remain seated and wait for a federal 'bailout.'" Thus does a conservative era end, with a Republican administration's policy as a punch line.
Ironies abound. The election of an African-American discomfits the Democratic Party. It practices identity politics, stressing the relevance of "race-conscious" policies, defending racial preferences in public hiring, contracting and education. But the election of Barack Obama is an American majority's self-emancipation: We are free at last from the inexpressible tedium of the preoccupation with skin pigmentation.
Another paradox: More than any presidency since Lincoln's, Bush's has been defined by a single subject, a war. But since the middle of September, in this presidency's last 130 days, the financial crisis eclipsed Iraq. Obama opposed the surge in Iraq, the success of which was perhaps a necessary prerequisite for his election. It removed the danger that he could be cast as advocating, or at least resigned to and complacent about, military defeat, from which most Americans, however much they regret the war, flinch.
More irony: September's financial storm probably sealed Obama's victory by raising the electorate's anxieties while lowering its confidence in Obama's opponent. John McCain's responses -- suspending, sort of, his campaign; ratcheting up his rhetoric about Wall Street "greed and corruption" -- suggested a line spoken solemnly by the Capitol Steps' George W. Bush impersonator: "Uncertain times call for uncertain leadership." But the storm's aftermath -- $1 trillion or so of government resources siphoned away -- will severely constrain Obama's presidency. So, this year the conditions conducive to the election of liberals, with their baroque plans and rococo dreams, have put a polar frost on most such ambitions.
Indeed, Obama's first problem will be drawing lines to circumscribe bailout promiscuity. The Bush administration, having executed a swan dive, or perhaps a belly-flop, into the financial sector, now seems to be flinching from extending the interventions into the industrial sector. Democrats in Congress, feeling their oats and hearing clamors from local corporations, will be Obama's first affliction.