It is now reasonable to think about Barack Obama becoming our next president. There are a number of significant virtues in this, such as the end of the dismal Bush-Clinton-Bush era of corruption, corporatization and cultural decay. Such as our first reasonably honest president in over 30 years. Such as a president desiring not just a more powerful America but a better one. Such as a president who might deal with other countries decently and not as a schoolyard bully.
On the other hand we will still have a president who supports the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind law, the basic fallacies of the war on terror, the continued abuse of the war on drugs and a medical industry controlled by profiteering insurance companies. He also appears largely indifferent to the collapse of constitutional government. There is nothing liberal, progressive or enlightened in any of these positions and it is a marker of the dismal state of liberalism that Obama has not been called on them.
Instead of mindlessly shouting “Yes, we can,” liberals and progressives should be telling the Obama crowd, “Yes, but.”
They could take a few lessons from the GOP rightwing which, even with the nomination all but sewed up, has still been able to force John McCain to change his positions on a number of key matters. Even when they lack a majority, they know how to stand their ground and shape the politics of the situation.
Liberals, on the other hand, not only never once forced Clinton to back down on one of his conservative moves, they never even tried. The same pattern is now clearly growing with Obama.
Liberals didn’t used to be like that. They understood – as the GOP right does today – that politics is a two front war: one front takes on the other party and the second front confronts elements of your own party with which you disagree.
This was obvious when liberals had to deal with the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Richard Daley or Camine DeSapio. Today, however, this same constituency – so deep into iconic rather than programmatic politics – is happy to help any Democrat enter the White House with no questions asked as long as the candidate, like a fine wine or classy car, adds gloss to their own image.
The effect of this phenomenon is likely to be quite different with Obama than it was with Clinton. Clinton, after all, was a con artist who corrupted others even as he enjoyed his own corruption. Further, the falsely premised enthusiasm he inspired was largely used for the benefit of himself and those close to him.
Obama is a more traditional politician, flawed to be sure, but without the depth of cynicism that propelled the Clintons and their friends. I imagine at times that as president he might be a bit like Dwight Eisenhower, placidly non-productive, occasionally exploited by corrupt friends, but mainly running the country like it was the world’s largest 7-11, adequate but unchanging. Hope will be replaced by calm.
The advantage of this is that you have a president who is not going to do anything as stupid as invade Iraq or start a war with Russia. On the other hand, when the Eisenhower administration ended we found ourselves at the beginning of an era we now know as the Sixties. Imposed tranquility can keep a lot from coming to the surface, but only for so long.
The other possibility is that Obama will be a Jimmy Carter-like transitional figure. Carter served as the bridge between New Deal-Great Society social democracy and the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush robber baron neo-capitalism that was waiting on the other side of the Seventies. In a similar way, Obama – far too careful and conservative to actually fulfill the hopes he has aroused – may at least ease us from the Reagan era in which we still suffer to something demonstrably better. Sometime after his tenure, we might actually discover a reason for hope.
We can, of course, only guess. A major recession could quickly raise the level of public impatience with the lies of neo-capitalism and put aside Obama’s caution. America’s fourth great awakening – the religious revival some believe began on the left in the Sixties only to end up later as a major tool of the right, could wear itself out. What we may actually be seeing in the fundamentalist fervor of Obama’s supporters is a sign of the transfer of faith from God back to politics again. It has been noted that after earlier great awakenings, something positive happened: the American revolution, the abolition movement and later the rise of progressive politics.
We can only guess, but it is safe to say that the excessive enthusiasm for the gossamer promise of Obama suggests that something important is happening well beyond the candidate himself. He just seems to have been at the right place at the right time – exploiting but not controlling.
In any case, if all goes about as well as can be expected these days, beginning on January 20 we will be introduced for the first time to the real Barack Obama. Hope and other cliches will take a back seat to budget and bills.
It is reasonable to expect to find a man far more timid than we have been led to believe. It is interesting to learn only just recently from Vanity Fair that Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review on the 19th ballot, as the overtly compromise candidate. This compromise law student would grow into a man who would promise to put right-wingers like Chuck Hagel in his cabinet, notably without similar promises to Democratic progressives or members of the Green Party. Compromise is clearly his safe haven; he is far more concerned with not doing wrong than with doing right.
And he is a lawyer. It is popular to consider that an asset for a politician, even though nearly half the members of our dysfunctional legislatures are lawyers, a job otherwise held by less than one percent of our population.
Observers as far back as de Tocqueville have railed against the American tendency to overload its politics with attorneys. And if you look at the record of lawyer presidents it’s pretty mixed. We’ve had 26 of them. With the exception of four founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln and FDR, the list also includes Millard Fillmore, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Hardly an argument you want to present to the jury.
My view is that lawyers in politics tend to be okay if they are clearly on your side. Otherwise they can be a pain in the butt. When people complained to me that John Edwards was a trial lawyer, I would respond, “Yeah, but he would be our trial lawyer.”
The other good lawyers are those for whom the law is simply a part of their life, informing it but not inspiring or guiding it, as in the case of FDR and Lincoln.
But Obama appears to be a lawyer through and through, which is why, for example, his healthcare plan is so awful. A pointlessly complex miasma designed for no higher purpose than to keep the insurance industry off his back. If you watched that recent debate in which attorneys Obama and Clinton spent a half hour trying to wriggle around the politics of the issue, you’d had little idea that they were actually talking about a large number of ill people not being able to afford to be ill because of the insurance industry.
In short, lawyers like Obama are great for handling divorces and settling disputes at the Harvard Law Review – perhaps even in the Mid East – but you don’t want them to lead movements. Their minds are too weighed down with caveats.
So if you want anything really good to happen in an Obama administration you will have break through the infinite subsections and footnotes of his brain and convince him that it is, on balance, better and easier to do the right thing.
Obama is an empty vessel. If liberals and progressives are as pathetically obsequious towards Obama as they were towards Clinton, that vessel will be filled with the desires of large financial institutions, health insurance oligopolies and foreign policy experts attempting to compensate for hormonal insecurities by invading this or that. And Obama will end his term with the status of Reid or Pelosi rather than of JFK.
It could be happen differently if liberals and progressives were to follow the techniques of the civil rights movement with the Democrats or the contemporary GOP right, a politically sophisticated blend of intramural pressure and cooperation.
It could begin with a list of no more than a half dozen demands that would become as familiar to the media and the public as have such rightwing nemeses as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research.
Single-payer healthcare and an end to American military invasions should be top contenders for the list because they already have sizable constituencies, media attention and are embarrassing to the Democratic Party establishment.
But first, an awful lot of people have to get their heads straight, starting with the poodle libs who have done so much damage to the cause of positive change by their loyalty to deceptive hustlers and their indifference to political substance.
We need a movement in which Obama is a key target, a healthy ally or a major opponent based not on warm and cuddly feelings but on the reality of his reaction to, and participation in, progressive change.
In short, the Obamania needs to die on Inauguration Day, replaced by a movement to end American imperialism, restore the Constitution, unravel the evils of neo-capitalism and instill some eco-sanity. It will be the strength of such a movement, and not the new president’s virtues, that will largely determine whether he does the right thing and whether the right things happens.
If, on the other hand, we just wait for Obama, we will wake up one morning and the words on our lips will not be “Yes, we can” but “Why the hell didn’t we?”