During the Presidential election campaign of 2008, I thought I saw four reasons why Barack Obama had significant potential to be a transformational President.
First, I thought that he would change the definition of what it means to be a typical American. He was reinventing American political culture by reimagining the American dream by addressing the problems of the great American dilemma, the continuing legacies of slavery.
Second, I thought he would move the political center from right to left on the great issue of the relationship between state and markets. He would demonstrate that government is not primarily the problem, as the Republicans since Reagan have maintained, but a major democratic institution that can help address the pressing problems of our times.
And third and fourth, I thought that the way he did politics and the way he spoke about politics, the way he was supported by a mobilized social movement wanting fundamental change, using what I call “the politics of small things,” and the way he used eloquence against sound bits, also marked a great political transformation. The form of his politics would be as significant as its contents.
I wonder what the readers of Deliberately Considered think at this time. I present here my preliminary judgments.
On formal issues I think he has delivered, in the case of eloquence, against his opponents, in the case of “the politics of small things,” with them.
The Tea Party and the Obama campaign are opposed in many ways, but they have in common that their power is generated by ordinary people meeting, speaking to each other and developing a capacity of acting in concert, i.e. they generate power in the sense of Hannah Arendt. I passionately support the ends of one of these movements and oppose the other. But a new, more democratic form is with us.
When his opponents attack him using sound bites, from the denunciations of “Obamacare,” to the birthers and the like, Obama’s reasonable responses seem to be at least as powerful. At a minimum, he shows that traditional eloquence has a fighting chance against media manipulations of his Fox and friends opponents. There are those who want him to go on the ideological warpath, who think of him as being too soft. But his rhetorical toughness should be noted, though it is often overlooked, most recently in his speech on the deficit last week. It’s not only a matter of what he says but how he says it.
On the matters of crucial substance, there is an ongoing battle, with an unpleasant victory on the one hand, redefining American identity, and, on the other hand, a real struggle, redefining the American center.
There is something truly unpleasant about the birther movement , the appeal of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump. They resist an African American President because of his identity. They want “to take our country back.” They portray a moderate man with quiet dignity as a demagogic fascist. Sometimes they are more explicit, portraying him with clearly racist terms and images. But I have a sense that they are pretty obviously fighting a losing battle, appearing more as clowns than the political monsters they could be if they had any chance of success. Those fighting against the diverse society that America is becoming, and that Obama celebrates and embodies, are fighting against demographics and bound to failure.
In the battle over the political economy, in his project to move the center left, Obama’s accomplishments are more contested. I don’t take seriously those who view him as a hard leftist, Marxist or socialist. This view which includes many Republicans, I think, has to be either silly tendentious exaggeration, perhaps serving ideological purposes in the sense of Clifford Geertz, or racism, i.e. in the cry “we have to take our country back.” I think it’s pretty clear, Obama is a left of center conventional Democrat. Some reasonable critics are concerned that he is insufficiently centrist, Michael Corey, for example in his reply to my last week in review post, or insufficiently leftist, Amy Stuart in her response to my post on Obama’s speech last week. She thinks he hasn’t stood up to Republicans and is accepting their story “about the need for austerity measures at a time of high unemployment and general economic slump.” He thinks that he is posturing, politicking already, not addressing the pressing problem of the deficit and the economy.
I tend to think that Obama is too accommodating to those who deny his legitimacy. More often than not, I want him to push harder to move things in a more progressive direction. Yet, unlike his critics who denounce him, as being no different than his Republican opponents, I think he is getting a lot done, on the four grounds I raised during his Presidential campaign. I still think he may be a transformational President, working to address very complicated problems in a reasonable way. Last week, before his speech, I felt that he desperately needed to distinguish his position from those of the Republicans. I am pleased he did, and I hope for follow through. On the other hand, I know he has to get the debt ceiling raised, and that short and medium term solutions to unemployment and economic crises have to be enacted, just as long term policies addressing both the problems of the deficit and social justice must be.
Elections are times when such issues should be discussed. The discussions don’t get in the way of good governance. They are a necessity. Also necessary is a clarification to how our political terrain and discourse is organized, i.e. understanding what are left, right and center, and how they relate. I will turn to this subject in an upcoming post. I hope others join me in this inquiry.