Monday, January 07, 2008

Obamania -- which side is he on?

After the Iowa caucuses, I got what I think of as "the letter" from a friend whose political activism I respect very much:

I read on your blog that you're planning to vote for John Edwards in the California primary and I want to make the case to you for supporting Barack Obama. I hope you'll give him another look and reconsider your plans.

I signed on long ago because I think he is the best democratic candidate. He's smart and streetwise, and yet he's still got integrity. He's real, not poll tested. He embodies change because of the color of his skin, his age, his short time in Washington and because of his mixed race and international heritage. He's been right on so many issues, especially the war, on which he is the only consistently anti-war candidate. He's tough--not only has he beaten a Clinton, but he's won in rough and tumble Chicago politics. He owns the change message for 2008, which will win over independents and which appeals to so many democrats, liberals and progressives who desperately crave a change. And, he ran a phenomenal ground campaign in Iowa--you've got to admire the campaign this organizer-at-heart put together and ran.

... Did you listen to or watch his speech [in Iowa]? Here's the text and video.

Okay, so I read the speech -- and then, since the text struck me as rather ordinary, I watched the video -- and that was more interesting, but I remain unconvinced.

Many of the (few) specifics in "the letter" seem shallow to me: Obama may have opposed the war before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but he has voted to fund it repeatedly and done nothing discernible to encourage backbone in Congressional Democrats who are enabling the war. Worse yet, he makes no serious critique of the imperial pretensions that got us into the war, while currently endorsing military intervention in Pakistan. The only Chicago campaigns he won were the ones in which he'd made himself the only viable candidate; his Senate race was against a joke. It is not clear to me that he has ever won a contested election campaign, though he did just win one party primary and looks to take New Hampshire as well. I don't know if I am seeing streetwise or smooth, though he certainly comes across as smart and likeable.

So, for the last couple of days, I've been trying to "get it". What is the Obama boom about anyway? What follows are semi-digested snippets.
  • The guy certainly is an organizer. That's the main lesson I take from the Iowa speech; he tells the people they won the fight and he makes them believe it. For any of us who hold that mobilizing the people is the content of democracy, that's always the message.
  • The speech was wonderful on atmospherics -- hope over fear, unity over division, change. The delivery was charismatic. But what, if anything, did he say? Nothing extraordinary I could discern. He makes the right noises on ending the Iraq war, access to health care, jobs -- the catalog that is the litany of Democratic issues. None of the candidates are deeply convincing on these vital matters; Obama shows he can name them, but that great organizer gives only a hint of a plan for getting there against opposition. Hope is necessary, but it is not sufficient when struggling with forces that will buy you if they must or kill you if they have to.
However, many smart people I listen to think he has found the message for the moment:

The Obama campaign has the feeling of real change, powered by real people. And in a period of our history where people want real change, I think that means Obama is going to win. ... the dynamic in this race overwhelmingly favors Obama.

Mike Lux

Many hope or fear he is a new John F. Kennedy, a charismatic figure whose election brought youth and vigor to a stodgy country. Young people do thrill to him -- that makes sense to me, because I am fortunate to have worked politically with lots of young people. Many are sick to death of feeling simply stuck, unable to move on to solving obvious problems because of fights that seem to them mired in old history. They want a hero who feels like one of their own to cut through the morass; Obama has won that role. The JFK role can have many implications. This comment catches some of the hopefulness that came of the JFK election:

JFK's election was never seen by many of us as any great millennium. But, fueled by many younger people and others of similar inclination, it reflected the profound discontent and frustration that had festered in the "dismal '50s." The election of '60 ushered in a rapidly growing atmosphere of Realistic Hope.

Movement picked up -- and up -- and People Wanted More -- and More. They pushed and More came.

It's always been my experience that, when folks start winning on good and tangible fronts, they shoot higher -- and higher. The Kennedys et al.[and the System in general] were pressured from the grassroots For More -- and More. And a fair amount of More did indeed come.

Hunter Gray

And this comment catches the pain of the aftermath:

Now they are comparing Barack Obama with JFK. I'm sad that young people put that kind of enthusiasm, place so much hope, in a politician again. Most of all it makes me sad to see them "fall in love" with a political leader. I been there, I done that. It still hurts. ...

Frankly, I don't think any of the candidates this year are very impressive, but after eight years of Bush, the bar isn't very high. I would be amazed if any of those running could do a worse job than he has. I would also be amazed if any were too successful either. It is no longer in their hands to be so.

But please, please, don't let the children fall in love with a politician again, the disillusionment is not worth the enthusiasm and does terrible damage to an entire generation.

David Seaton

Of course, we, the tired and the disillusioned, don't get to tell anyone who they can fall in love with -- it is not our time.

And we can't ignore race and the country's white supremacist past and present... Just as I was before Iowa, I remain convinced that Obama leans so strongly in his rhetoric on a promise to unite rather than fight because, for an ambitious Black man in this still racist country, convincing whites they should not feel threatened remains Number One Job. He's had a lifetime learning to perform that pre-requisite to success; doing it well got him Harvard and the Senate; he's not going to change now. This makes me nervous -- in the President's office, would he dare to get much of the country's back up if he had to? Or would he follow a life long pattern of trying to draw in the forces who'll be arrayed against him -- the warmongers, the corporate lobbyists and the health profiteers? It's the powerless who lose most if their chosen champion makes nice with their enemies. The issue is one of trust.

After Iowa, after digging into what Obama says and what others say about him, I'll still probably vote for Edwards in California. The white guy from the south forced the others to deal with the critical issues that face Democratic constituents, so he gets my single vote, and I am not working for anyone.

I don't go into Democratic Presidential primaries expecting to love any candidate (these are actually all relatively adequate; I don't even hate Clinton).
Once in office, any of them would require frequent kicks in the pants from progressives to keep them marginally on our side. You see, I think there are sides. Does Obama believe in his heart that there are sides? That's what I continue to wonder.
For a great collection of international reactions to a man of color taking the lead in the U.S. Democratic primaries, see Global Soul Power.

1 comment:

Fr. John said...

Jan, you give reason for pause before giving oneself over to the Obamania. I appreciate your careful analysis. I think that, given our nations history and all else being pretty much equal, I'm still going to vote for Obama. The potential for hope and healing outweighs the risks of disappointment.

And, I have to say, another compelling reason for me is that I don't think I could look my African-American son in the eye and explain why I didn't vote for an equally qualified black candidate. Obama's election will allow my son, and so many people of color around the world, a chance to see themselves reflected in the political process in a powerful way. The world is not color-blind, which is why voting for a person of color, who is qualified and not just a token, matters.

(of course, I recognize that much the same could be said about electing a woman . . .)