Sometimes, you really just have to sit back and laugh at the ridiculousness of the celebrity-obsessed political culture we now live in. Take this Chicago Sun-Times article by Lynn Sweet in which she predicts Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D) will run for president. She goes through what he has to do to prepare for his run, and this is the one that just makes you chuckle:
"Develop signature legislative initiatives: Once the Democrats control Congress come January, there's a chance to pass legislation. Watch for Obama to focus on alternative energy measures, health care and ethics reform legislation that stalled earlier this year."
Think about it. The national media is swooning over Obama, begging him to run for president. Yet, at the same time, they are implicitly acknowledging that he has actually not "developed significant legislative initiatives." In other words, we are to simply accept that the the Obama for President wave has absolutely nothing to do with anything that the man HAS DONE and further, that whenever he does decide to use his enormous political capital to do something, it is all in pursuit of the White House - not any actual sense of DOING SOMETHING for the people who elected him to the Senate.
I don't blame Obama for not having accomplished much - he's been in the Senate for two years. As I wrote in the Nation, the main concern about him is that he doesn't actually seem to ASPIRE to anything outside of the Washington power structure (other than maybe running for another higher office), and doesn't seem to be interested in challenging the status quo in any fundamental way. Using his senate career as a guide, it suggests that any presidential run by him is about him, his speaking ability and his fawned over talent for "connecting" (whatever the hell that means).
For progressives, this situation is perilous indeed. Obama is a candidate who has kept his record deliberately thin, who has risked almost nothing for the bigger movement, and in fact who has sometimes gone out of his way to reinforce dishonest stereotypes about the left. This is a man who has helped launch the Hamilton Project designed to undermine Democrats pushing for fairer trade deals. This is a man who belittled Paul Wellstone as merely a "gadfly." This is a man who refused to lift a finger for Ned Lamont. Flocking to a candidate like that without demanding that he change only reinforces the damaging concept that our movement is a Seinfeld Movement about nothing.
Consider Ezra Klein's recent piece in the Los Angeles Times about Obama:
"Obama is a cipher, an easy repository for the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere...But if Obama avoided being battle-tested in 2004 by the grace of God, it's his own timidity that has kept his name clean since. Given his national profile and formidable political talents, he could have been a potent spokesman for Democratic causes in the Senate. Instead, he has refused to expend his political or personal capital on a single controversial issue, preferring to offer anodyne pieces of legislation and sign on to the popular efforts of others...Indeed, Obama is that oddest of all creatures: a leader who's never led. There are no courageous, lonely crusades to his name, or supremely unlikely electoral battles beneath his belt. He won election running basically unopposed, and then refused to open himself to attack by making a controversial but correct issue his own."
Ezra goes on to point out that there are ways Obama could have proved himself. "He could, say, make universal healthcare coverage his public obsession or demand an end to the war in Iraq" he says. "He could fight for full public financing of all campaigns, or seek a national living wage." He hasn't done that, and not doing it has nothing to do with Obama's canned answer that he's "just a junior senator" who supposedly can't do anything. He's got the biggest microphone in American politics and he's in the third year of a six-year Senate term representing a solidly blue state, meaning there should be no political dangers for this man to aggressively push the progressive agenda he himself says he supports and which public opinion polls show the country is ready for. And still, he has DECIDED not to yet try to do anything that pushes the envelope (though I have long been optimistic that at some point he may lead the fight for public financing of elections, which would be fantastic).
I want to be clear: I don't think our movement is a Seinfeld Movement. But don't fool yourself: a movement that rushes to embrace a candidate without demanding that candidate actually lead on the issues that the movement is supposed to be about - well, that could be a death blow for what we are working toward. Movements move because leaders lead and because they weild power by forcing politicians to stand up for people. Movements are killed by false prophets, cults of personality and by the unwillingness of those in the movement to weild their power for their agenda.
Look, I'm willing to admit that maybe it's true: maybe in this age of cynicism where people have completely given up on the idea that government can do anything, all the country really wants is a great orator who nebulously "connects" - a talk show host President who makes us feel good when he's on TV, even as he refuses to use his power to actually change anything. But I think now, more than ever, people are looking for a conviction politician - someone who has either done something, or at least used their platform to try to do something through raising taboo issues.
I sincerely hope that Obama becomes a conviction politician, whether he stays in the Senate or runs for President. I mean that, because our side needs conviction politicians with his skills, and because I don't want to see our movement be tricked by someone who is not part of the movement. If he becomes a conviction politician, then there is no quandary for progressives, and he would make a great president - one that I would loudly cheer on.
However, the admission that Barack Obama has to hustle now to create accomplishments as a WAY to run for President rather than him running for President as a way to nationalize accomplishments he's already achieved or merely TRIED to achieve is really a sad commentary on the substance-free nature of American politics today.