Not in White House, but women still won

OK, I admit it. My kids were right. I was wrong.

Barack Obama clearly was the best choice for Democrats to nominate for president. Of course, you will figure that hindsight allows me to say that, but it really was evident even before the election last Tuesday.

Obama gives the best hope, as president, of bringing us together in a time when we desperately need leadership that is inclusive of all Americans. The great emotion that swelled the nation, from Grant Park in Chicago to people watching election results on their TVs at home, would not have happened with any other candidate, in the primaries or in the general election.

With Hillary Clinton, who was Obama’s fierce opponent in the Democratic race, I fear the partisan sniping in this country wouldn’t even have taken a rest 24 hours after the election.

Some know I was a Clinton supporter earlier. I suppose, it was the woman thing. The realization that a woman finally had real political power and also was quite capable of running the country made her an appealing candidate. She appealed to many other women as well.

When Clinton failed in the Democratic caucuses to get enough delegates to beat Obama, many of her other supporters were very upset. They threatened last summer to vote for John McCain in November.

Yet, as Nov. 4 neared, we didn’t hear from them anymore. And, judging from election exit polls, women voters went strongly for Obama. The new president-elect drew more than half of women voters, and one report said it was as high as 56 percent. Men split between Obama and McCain more evenly.

Women voters in the last couple of decades have become a force. So last week’s election was a reaffirmation, once again, that issues of education, children and health care must be on a candidate’s priority list.

Women voters do not look at these or other issues necessarily the same way, but candidates must learn to assess the appeal to women voters of stands they take in any given election.

Even though the leading woman candidate fell short of the White House in the primary, in a number of other ways women advanced this year as major players on the national stage.

Start with Sarah Palin. You may believe she was a drag on the GOP’s chances because voters were turned off by her inexperience and folksiness, but clearly she struck a chord with many who admired her background as governor and small-town mayor, her ability to balance family and politics, and her speech-giving skills.

She was not a substitute who could appeal to many Hillary Clinton voters, as early reports about her would have us believe, but Palin obviously energized a GOP political base that was becoming ho-hum about McCain’s candidacy. She got the crowds out, you betcha.

Palin likely has a political career ahead of her, which could start with a U.S. Senate race after Alaska figures out what to do with dishonored GOP Sen. Ted Stevens.

This election, too, seemed to signal a women’s liberation of a new sort.

Several leading Democratic women officeholders signed on early with Obama, rather than Clinton. This seems to me an abrupt departure from the past, as Democratic women have tended to stick together in campaigns.

The “defectors” include Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. As a result of their decision to publicly and passionately back Obama, they are going to have much sway in the new administration. Sebelius often is mentioned for a position in the new president’s Cabinet. Can’t get much more powerful than that.

Finally, this election guarantees that women will have a strong advocate in the White House, and not just the president. Michelle Obama is not likely to be as Hillary Clinton was to Bill and try to broker a health-care compromise. But she shows promise in underscoring the concerns of women trying to balance all they have to do in life, and of being a role model in that regard.

I predict that Michelle Obama will be every bit as popular among voters as Laura Bush. That adds to the opportunity for success by a historic presidency that wants to make us whole again.