Why I'm Kinda Fonda Obama (And More So Each Week)
Some of us who like Barack Obama get accused of having drunk the Kool-Aid - or perhaps love-potion would be more accurate - and thus being too smitten by his rhetorical enticements to see him clearly for what he is.
Maybe that accurately describes many of his fans, but it's definitely not me.
I warmed up to Obama slowly, and I'm still rather dubious about what he would actually do as president. Moreover, I found his rhetorical gifts to be, if anything, both overstated and simultaneously a bit off-putting. For a long time, I never thought that Obama was quite the magician at the microphone that he was supposed to be. And when he was eloquent, he raised my hard-earned suspicions about those politicians who can make people feel good with words, whilst deftly picking their pockets at the very same time. We had a president like that in the 1980s, and then another one in the 1990s. It didn't work out so well. (Although it did work out better than the current one, who skipped the rhetorical foreplay altogether and jumped directly to the royal screwing.)
I didn't really start to warm up to Obama until February or so. But I have to say that since then, he seems more impressive to me each week. It's easy to like this guy a lot in a relative sense - which may be why I or others come off as gaga for 'Bama when we're not actually. Anyhow, he's certainly light-years ahead of either of his competitors for the presidency. But, the more I see him in action, the more I like him in an absolute sense as well. I think perhaps he's for real, and I think perhaps he could be a great president at a moment of multiple crises in this country.
Perhaps not. The real danger is that he would settle for half-measures and replicate the behavior of the Clinton presidency (make that one-tenth-measures). He might even be adored for that, given the public's disgust with the current government, and given their actual desire to avoid serious amounts of real change, however much they like to mouth the words. Even if that was all he was, that would still be one hell of an improvement. I think he would have little choice but to end the war in Iraq and to move on national healthcare, even if he didn't want to risk the considerable political capital necessary for pursuing either of these initiatives. Those two changes alone would be worth the price of admission, but you most certainly could also throw in improved relations with the world, a real government in place of rampant cronyism, much improved environmental protection, and at least moderates as choices for the Supreme Court and other federal judgeships. Like I said, that alone - essentially a return to the status quo ante - would represent some very substantial improvement.
I'd say the real question is whether Obama would have the courage and skill to tackle other real problems that require Americans to actually make some serious changes and sacrifices, and that would require fighting some very powerful lobbies. Certainly healthcare falls under that category, but I think Obama has promised that enough now that he could not really walk away from it. But what about energy policy? Global warming? Military spending? De-imperializing American foreign policy? Entitlement reform? The deficit and the debt? The economy? Gay rights? Regulation of Wall Street?
He can't try to do all these things at once, and he absolutely shouldn't. And yet, many of them scream out for solutions yesterday, let alone tomorrow. Obama could probably easily ride out four years, or even eight, and still get away with pretending to address some of these problems, while remaining highly popular. Clinton did it. Indeed, it is quite likely that much of Obama'a popularity would rest on his not seriously addressing these issues. But the mark of greatness in his or any other presidency is the ability to articulate the big issues of our time (and to do so accurately, Mr. Bush), to place them on the national agenda, to sell the issues at home and abroad, to advance the right solutions, and then to successfully implement those. FDR did it twice, with the New Deal and the World War II. Clinton never did - unless you happen to think the V-Chip was a great leap forward for humankind - though the near-term read on his presidency is that it was still modestly successful. Does Obama have Rooseveltian levels of courage and moxie to be something special? Hard to say so far (and, of course, there's the minor matter of getting elected still ahead of him), but I like some of the signs I see.
I like Obama more each week for a number of reasons. One is certainly the eloquent rhetoric. I think that can be hugely important, as long as it's real, not empty. I'll admit that I initially shared the concern of many that Obama was all rhetoric, no substance. And, to a certain extent it's true, his speeches pretty much contain a lot of lofty notions that are about as objectionable as motherhood and apple pie. But the truth is that he's actually used some pretty tough language on a number of issues, including the two I care about most - the war and economic justice. When I looked closely at those speeches I realized that he is saying pretty much exactly what I'd want a progressive politician to be saying. And, to the minor extent that he's not tossing more red meat out in my direction, I have to admire his wisdom in refraining from doing so, even assuming (which I don't) that he is so inclined. He's not going to get elected by banging the socialism drum, or the Bush impeachment drum, or the fairness to Palestinians drum, so why should he? Especially as a candidate, I don't expect him to commit political suicide, nor do I want him to. As they say, sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. A perfect Candidate Obama would surely yield a disastrous President McCain. No thanks to that.
Obama's speeches really are quite impressive, and I think it's fair to say that this country and this world need some uniting now, and need some direction too. So I like him for that reason, but I also like him because he's a really smart candidate. Obama seems to have brought the ethos of successful community organizing to electoral politics, just as Paul Wellstone did, and it's worked. In fact, it's worked really well. After a year and a half of campaigning, we would do well to remind ourselves of the enormity of the dragon he's slain. I don't think anyone - least of all the Clintons themselves - seriously expected him to dethrone Her Inevitableness, Queen Hillary, and yet he's done just that, and quite masterfully. They never saw it coming. They blew off the caucus states, and he went there and out-hustled and out-organized and out-smarted them, quietly pocketing the delegates necessary to win the nomination. Moreover, the Clintons have continued throughout the campaign - and continued again this week with her speech in Kentucky - to bait him into overreacting by declaring victory or showing the slightest annoyance at her massively destructive continuation in the race. He won't do it. He continues to praise her and remains gracious to a fault. I suspect that graciousness is a genuine part of his personality, but either way, it's also extremely smart. Timing is everything, and if he declares victory prematurely he risks being perceived as a bully, and throwing the emotional momentum of the race back in her direction.
He's also smart in the way that he's now transitioning into the general election. The simplest way to win this year is to morph John McCain into George W. Bush. It ain't exactly a giant, unfair leap to do so, either, but leave it to any other Democrat running for president to somehow forget. Not Obama. He's been labeling McCain as George Bush's third term for months now, which is precisely the language he should use. As long as voters believe that - and they should, despite McCain's absurd and absurdly late efforts to distance himself from Bush - everything else that follows beyond that perception is mere commentary. Not for nothing is 'change' the operative word of this election. Voters are ravenous for the opportunity to reject the status quo, and Obama is making sure that they have that opportunity by (rightly) chaining McCain to the sinking ship of Bushism that McCain helped launch and keep afloat all these years.
Obama is also brilliant and gutsy to use Karl Rove's rule of attacking an opponent's strength, although in his case it is legitimate to do so, whereas for Rove it's always breathtakingly nauseating when he goes after someone in the cheapest and most deceitful fashion. McCain's supposed to be Mr. Clean, right? This week, Obama reminded us how a decade ago McCain had proposed barring lobbyists from working on campaigns. He went on to note that, "John McCain then would be pretty disappointed in John McCain now, because he hired some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington to run his campaign. And when he was called on it, his top lobbyist actually had the nerve to say the American people won't care about this." For the life of me, I can't visualize John Kerry or Michael Dukakis or the Al Gore of 2000 exhibiting either the smarts or the courage to toss a heater right down the middle like that. Which is why they all lost and Obama likely will not.
McCain would like very much to position himself as above the fray in the coming campaign, based on his POW experience and his supposed clean government agenda. That would be an outrageous gift, and one which it looks to me that Obama is smart enough not to bestow on him. After all, McCain has been very much part of the problem, not the solution, all along. The regressive right and its electoral vehicle - aka the Giant Oleaginous Pukefest - have made a shambles of this country, and it is more than fitting that McCain should be hoisted by his own petard. Yes, it's true that he is not as monstrous as some of them, but he's also far less the 'maverick' (can we please just ban this word for the rest of this year?) than he'd love for you to believe he is. In any case, with the right's record - ranging from Iraq, to exploding debt, to Katrina, to global warming, to a wrecked economy - anybody still willing to call themselves a Republican deserves everything they get this November. And they're gonna get a lot. At this point, they literally cannot even win a congressional seat in Mississippi (Mississippi!!), and that's in a district that Bush won by something like 24 percent less than four years ago.
A third reason I like Obama is because he is reaching people and mobilizing them. That is important for winning, and it will be important for governing too. Participation in politics is off the charts this cycle - at least by American politics' standards - and a fair chunk of that is attributable to Obama (though George Bush certainly deserves a lot of credit for bringing out voters, too, much to the chagrin of his party). Moreover, Obama is raising unprecedented amounts of money from unprecedented numbers of contributors. Again, this will be crucial to both winning and to governing. He has already demonstrated the former, stomping Clinton after her fat-cats had already maxed out and not too many other folks were much interested. As for governing, a President Obama would have a lot of stakeholders expecting big things from him in the White House, people that he dare not disappoint. Equally important would be the stakeholders he wouldn't have. Nice folks such as Exxon/Mobil, Blackwater, Halliburton and the like.
I'm also warming up to Obama, fourth, because I think he's tough enough to throw a punch. It took the Democrats thirty years to figure this one out, but it looks as though they finally have. Obama's not gonna be some robotic Michael Dukakis, talking the fine points of arcane policy prescriptions when he's just been asked how he would react to his wife being raped. A bunch of scumbags in the Tennessee Republican Party have already begun a campaign against Michelle, and he right away called them "low-class" for questioning his wife's patriotism. He went on to say, "Whoever is in charge of the Tennessee GOP needs to think long and hard about the kind of campaign they want to run", and, "These folks should lay off my wife". For my money, that's pitch-perfect. Not only is he ethically right to say these things, and not only is he strategically wise as well, but the plain truth is the voting public wants to see whether a presidential candidate can actually slug it out when it's needed, and they're not necessarily wrong in principle to look for that.
Obama's also not going to play the moronic patsy like Kerry did four years ago, waiting three weeks to respond to the Swiftboaters' character assassination attempts. Both George Bush and McCain tried to attach Obama to Neville Chamberlain this last week - in Bush's too-clever-by-half case, without naming names and then trying to deny the intended target they had already previously made clear. Even so, Obama didn't wait, but rather shot right back, attacking Bush for using national security yet again to divide the country and score political points. When McCain got into the act, no doubt on the direction of Karl Rove or some Karl Rove clone, Obama kicked it right back in his teeth, and once again tied him to Bush's idiocy: "Iran is the biggest single beneficiary of the war in Iraq," he said. "John McCain wants to double down that failed policy." I tell ya, if John Kerry was the nominee, and Bob Shrum was advising him on the way to the latter's tenth presidential campaign loss in a row (with zero wins), they'd maybe get around to responding to these pot-shots by February. Maybe. Obama didn't wait for a single news cycle to go by.
And he went even further, which is a fifth reason I like this guy. He actually talked intelligently and honestly with the American public, instead of pandering to their political vacuousness, and instead of stupidly buying into the right's absurd fear frame, and thus playing on their turf. Obama made the ridiculously obvious, but so long now absent, simple contextual observation about the threat of Iran. Which is that, whatever it is, it ain't like the Soviet Union, with whom Saint Reagan negotiated, and against whom we didn't need to go to war, through 45 years of competition. What a concept, eh?! I bet a lot of Americans are wishing maybe they had thought of that back in 2003. I know a lot of Iraqis are. And about a million more would be. Except, of course, that they happen to be dead.
Indeed, if I was Obama, I'd go even further and use the whole Reagan hagiography nonsense against its perps, just like a jujitsu black-belt uses the weight of an opponent against that adversary. I'd run ads asking "Why is John McCain demeaning Ronald Reagan? President Reagan negotiated with our enemies, so why does John McCain describe what Ronald Reagan did as naive and foolish?" Boom. End of story.
So, Obama had the courage to do something that just doesn't happen anymore in American politics. He talked logically and forthrightly about an issue. That is especially rare when it comes to foreign policy and security threats. He noted that "strong countries and strong presidents talk to their adversaries. That's what Reagan did with Gorbachev. I mean think about it. Iran, Cuba, Venezuela - these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying we're going to wipe you off the planet."
This is precisely the kind of respectful, non-contemptuous, mature, adult sort of language Obama also employed with his already famous Philadelphia speech on race, which was astonishing for a variety of reasons, but most especially because it was the first time in a very long time that a politician didn't address us as if we were kindergartners, unable to think beyond two-dimensional cartoon cutouts of Mr. Good versus Mr. Evil. I'm not entirely sure the American public actually craves this sort of discourse (because, of course, it inevitably leads - horror of horrors - to their having to take responsibility for their own politics), but I sure as hell do. And I'm not sure the American public deserves this sort of honest discussion, but most assuredly the rest of the world does. In any case, Obama is providing it, and it is shockingly novel. And breathtakingly respectful.
Think about the profound effect that alone could have. Four years of that from the bully pulpit could dramatically change the political culture in this country. Even we progressives sometimes lose sight of the extent to which the entire regressive agenda is built on everyone failing to tell the emperor he's walking around in his freakin' underwear. The right have many nightmares which keep them up at night - an end to their greedy feeding at the public trough, having to share resources with the rest of the world, a black man or a woman in the White House, etc. - but, trust me on this, nothing shakes them up quite like the existential threat of someone intelligently and forthrightly discussing policy questions in America. Once that crack in the dam appears, they are finished forever.
Finally, I like Obama because he seems to have some real decency and integrity about him. And, man, is that rare in American politics. From what I can tell, he doesn't seem so psychologically damaged - like both Clintons and both Bushes and plenty of others - that he absolutely has to have the presidency in order to validate his so very fragile sense of self-esteem. He doesn't seem willing to say or do anything in order to get there. He doesn't seem as bogus as a three dollar bill when he speaks to people. He doesn't strike me as a predator who will do anything to liberate me from my vote.
Maybe that's just because he's such an amazing politician that he fools me better than all the rest. I will admit that at different points over the years John McCain has charmed me to various degrees, though I certainly gave up on him forever after his performance at the Republican convention of 2004 and his enthusiastic stumping for Bush that year on the basis of national security. And he's only gotten worse since. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, seems to have mesmerized millions, though he never did anything for me (apart from not being George Herbert Walker Bush or Ronald Reagan), other than to raise my hackles at regressing the Democratic Party as well as the country's general political discourse.
Maybe I'm wrong about Obama. Maybe he sees people like me coming from a mile away, and proceeds to eat us for breakfast. But I don't think so. Neither his words nor his actions nor his demeanor nor his policies nor his background suggest to me that he is the garden variety self-serving politician we've barely survived for so long now. As far as I can see, Obama's got integrity, sincerity and grace about him. How about that in a president, eh? Out of three hundred million of us, I suppose we were bound to stumble into someone like that eventually, just by the laws of probability alone.
Obama looks to me, in short, to be inspiring, smart, gutsy, empowering, forthright and decent. Moreover, I think it is possible that he just might actually be capable of uniting the country, as he claims to aspire to do. I think the country would rally behind him in that effort, bestowing on him a healthy heaping of good will and support, and a serious interest in transcending the massive failings of the current crowd. In this respect, I am much reminded of the hopefulness originally attached to Tony Blair, and his resounding victory of 1997, following 18 years of Thatcherism.
Let us hope that, should Obama win the presidency and win that good will and support, he won't also follow Blair's path in providing showmanship over substance, and criminal idiocy when he actually does do something substantive. I don't think he'd make those mistakes.
In my lifetime I've survived Nixon, Reagan and two Bushes, not to mention Watergate, impeachment, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq twice, wimpy Democrats, a cowardly press, and a lazy and selfish electorate. And I've got all the scars and bruises you'd expect to show for those decades of disappointment. Believe me, I'm no Pollyanna.
It takes a lot these days to get me to use the words 'hope' and 'politics' in the same sentence. But I am more hopeful about American politics now than I've been in decades, and perhaps ever in my lifetime.
Barack Obama is a substantial part of that optimism.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.