With the run-up to the Democratic National Convention and Obama’s epic speech (we know it will be that), it’s useful to remind everyone that you should not pour all your hopes in him; he is a weak vessel, as he is human after all.
There has been a problem of perception surrounding Obama since the beginning. I’m not referring to the Muslim rumors, the madrassa rumors, the not-born-in-the-US rumors, though that is a very basic manifestation of what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is that no one seems to know what, exactly, Obama means, stands for, will put first, etc. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com (if you aren’t reading that site yet, and you are a political junkie, I don’t know what to say to you besides read it) researched the Obama comparisons, which revealed that Obama had been compared to everyone from Thomas Dewey to JFK to Ronald Reagan. The problem doesn’t end there; the New York Times Magazine ran an article this week describing Obama as a “Free-market Loving, Big-Spending, Fiscally Conservative Wealth Redistributionist.” This makes him sound like the politico-economic equivalent of a Liger, plainly somewhat ridiculous and contrived. Some think of him as a squishy idealist; others, as a political animal. Awesome powers are ascribed to him: look anytime on Facebook and you can see that photo of him with “Hope” or “Change”; or, for a more journalistic view of the matter, look at the article “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” Something has gone wrong here.
Something has gone wrong because plainly, all these things can’t be right. If that were all that were wrong, we wouldn’t be in such bad shape—after all, there are still Republicans who believe Bill Clinton ran a drug ring out of Arkansas. But then again, that has the view of conspiracy theory: it’s not as widespread, nor does it rest on a mistaken view of what the moment represents.
We have agreed that, if Barack Obama were to be elected, it would be a radical moment. But we have no idea what this means. Visually, this is an easy conclusion to make (hint: Barack doesn’t look like the rest of the guys on the money). And obviously it’d be excellent to have a black guy in the White House after all these years. But, on the issues, it is rather different; Obama is in many ways a conventional liberal. His views on foreign policy aren’t radical (he does not, for instance, publicly question the imperialistic aspects of American foreign policy. If you don’t see what I mean, ask yourself: why do we still have troops in Germany?), nor are his economic views that far out. No, on the issues he is a conventional liberal. Perhaps he will reform the process? He does speak of unity and bridging gaps and the like quite a bit. One hopes he doesn’t carry this too far, as with the execrable FISA compromise—it’s great to speak of compromises, but compromising the Fourth Amendment is more a surrender than anything else. So we are left with a considerably more blurry picture of what type of change Obama intends to bring to the table.
And, even if the change is of the right kind, we should not expect it to be very far reaching. The history of liberalism in our country is one of bitter disappointment and half-done tasks. Go look at the Tilden election that ended Reconstruction, or redbaiting bringing down Truman’s ambitions, or the Vietnam War destroying LBJ’s career, or Al Gore being screwed by one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court decisions. If you have ambitions for change, know that the Constitutional system is set up to make this difficult. Just ask Dr. No, Tom Coburn. He’ll block every liberal bill he wants, because he doesn’t care about being unpopular among his Senatorial colleagues.
Then there’s the economic situation. You might want health care and cap-and-trade and those kinds of things, but you know what? We’re back in the days of stagflation. Fortunately the deficit isn’t as terrible as some have lead you to believe—as a percentage of GDP, it’s less than the percentage beginning Clinton’s first term—but it is a factor that Obama will have to contend with when considering all the other ambitious proposals he says he wants to pursue.
All this is a long way of explaining that you should expect to be disappointed by politics for a while. (But disappointment should not lead to apathy or giving up; this only cedes the field to those disappointing you).