“I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.”
-Poem of Disconnected Parts – Robert Pinsky
It’s been said over and again that America is full of opportunities. Yet, as if in some Kafkaesque model, some opportunities appeared too great to be acted upon. For the moment, that all appears a bit moot. And as a troubling and bellicose time of governance turns toward promises and hope, the republic’s grandly imperfect circus now flirts with the possibility of stepping from the low-down to the lofty. These days, amongst the snows of winter, talents of mendacity and ambition seem to meld and get along just fine with high-minded notions of service, of striving, of living out, and living, well, large. The awe has stepped out with the awkward.
Celebration and revelry continue, even for those in the cheap seats. Offstage, and waiting in the wings for change, both activists and operatives have begun their tango, their grasp and grapple for walk on parts and center stage roles with all of the twirling and tart flaws such after campaign-command performances produce. Now, the ongoing and growing cluster of the photo-political, has run from the classical to the vivid, driven in part by helpings of leftover adrenaline and in portion by perceived pay-back long overdue.
With his tony, avant-garde campaign successfully throwing off the hollow baby-boomer mantra of, “I disagree, therefore I am”, and after beating the reactionary right like a piñata, the new fast-tracked, fast paced, ‘President Cool’ appears the topic in the realm of parlor games and the guess work which accompanies both agenda and administration buildup. Growing numbers want a stroll into the clearing, some face time, and there break into one of those ‘well, look’ conversations. Such things never, ever happened in the political career of the guy from Illinois, and with all transparency and full disclosure, it ain’t happening now. Mr. Obama’s centrist and right-of center appointments are proving unsettling to those perceiving themselves as his ‘base’.
The new Gautama has not gathered in the garden with the victims of post-modernity, black or white, carrying their pre-existing conditions, their mythologies, and their hyper-vigilance like begging bowls in tow. Rumor and fear abound in such periods, and such expectations are the residue of the permanent campaign. As things unfold, some of the faithful view an increasing, if not pre-planned consortium with the ‘them’, the ‘others’.
“If large numbers of Americans are turned off by politics”, wrote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, “it’s in no small part because they are sick of the consuming that singular process ‘the campaign’ represents.” They are too long and too costly. They possess the propensity to blur the senses and market false promise. They could be teachable moments, but no. These times could explore the rationale for a grueling primary season, the Electoral College, super delegates, proportional representation. Such exploration proves too heavy. Distractions? Or stone cold and problematic. A hassle.
These seasons are axiomatic. They are sometimes frightening. They are promissory and cruelly exhilarating. For the loser, nothing softens its ending, and for the ideologue, like the junky, nothing contains a numbing. The historic newness of things can be muddied, scores settled, wounds re-opened and so forth…and so on. And such a season both favored and gave legs to the Obama phenomena, a thing the density of ambition and illusion has continued to shamelessly propel.
The fog of political campaigns themselves holds moments of drama, minutes of name calling. There’s hollow accusation. There’s humor and banality amidst those balloons and bunting. By the time these exercises close out, Americans generally find an odd ingredient of nut cases providing occasional flashpoints, strident choruses, complimenting groans and speculation amongst the spin-room chatter. There is next time. Few, honestly, know what the others mean exactly. Mouths move and sounds are heard. Expectations leave some breathless.
Recently the “first-lady-elect” lamented to an interviewer that you “had to campaign for 18 months, then change your life and relocate in six weeks”. But Clintonista James Carville captured it best in saying, “A campaign is the time to stab your enemies and a transition is the time to stab your friends.” And though few hold for a ‘ghettoization’ of the incoming president, an emerging cadre is beginning to wonder where they’ll turn for their’ stuff’ as faith and slippage collide.
Their vetting process was/is flawed, or either they just don’t care. A Boston Globe story stated Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama's presidential campaign and now Special Assistant to the President, was “the chief executive of Habitat Co., which managed Grove Parc Plaza from 2001…and co-managed an even larger subsidized complex in Chicago that was seized by the federal government in 2006, after city inspectors found widespread problems." Secretary of the Treasury designee, Timothy Geithner, while president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York had oversight of banks like Citigroup and finds himself in the middle of a failing bank bailout, the fall of Lehman Brothers, and failed to pay more than $34,000 in federal taxes.Change.
Unique to such enterprises, the champion of the ’08 outing, the longest and most costly in the country’s history, owns his words. Some were tested by his handlers in a governor’s contest in Massachusetts a couple of years earlier. Even for an idiot, they provided a coherent narrative: Change. Hope. Believe. We can. O.K? The contours of the end game were formed by such neuromarketing and a political consultant, David Axelrod, who now occupies an office in the West Wing. Hope.
Larry M. Bartels’ in his, The Irrational Electorate, recently in The Wilson Quarterly, tells us the political campaign “claws at the intelligence of the electorate. Does it really matter whether voters can name the secretary of defense or know how long a senate term is? The political consequences of “public ignorance” must be demonstrated, not assumed. And that requires focusing not just on what voters don’t know, but on how what they don’t know actually affects how they vote. Do they manage to make sensible choices despite being hazy about the details of politics and government? (Okay, really hazy.) If they do, that’s not stupid – it’s efficient.” Believe.
In real life, the politically moderate Barack Obama found his voice, email lists, and a winning electoral equation, around progressives and black America in particular, later drawing attention from other moderates through a kind of Kantian sensibility. There was never a real coalition so to speak. This has become more visible as campaign buttons are quickly replaced with “me” pins, in some circles. Obviously Barack Obama has had a profound impact on ways of thinking in America, and the world. However, attempting to sort out messages for true vision, and hope for the real deal, may prove daunting, providing varying results. Plugging tenets of rationalism into sockets of empiricism is not for the faint of heart. As more and more campaign promises fail to materialize, one might recall Cicero’s letter to his brother Quintus on electioneering. There he wrote, “…for your status as a ‘new man’ you will compensate by your fame as a speaker.” (Nominus novitatem dicendi gloria maxime subevabis). And although the candidate from Illinois refrained from donning Sioux headdress, as had some of his predecessors in the process, a lack of social inertia in ‘the campaign’ proved magically preserved, and as in the ‘campaign’, there remains a slow response to crisis by the President and his posse. Selective memory, like cafeteria politics, swirled within his transition.
Race and ‘time’ has occupied a position of prominence in the frame of both thought and emotion in the American epoch. Despite the illusion, this campaign proved no different. It provided a surreal sense of ownership. A piece, a prize, a sweet slice of history and involvement with “the man” even through a “t-shirt”, a button. Underappreciated early-on, candidate Obama soon garnered those driven by need and urgency. The icon grew enchanting, shrouded in sophistication and coupled with the need to imagine his sorrows and struggles because some wanted, or needed to. Candidate Obama himself, in addressing the issue of ‘race’ said, “At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black”, or “not black enough”.”
Northeastern Illinois University professor, and member of Chicago’s Task Force for Black Political Empowerment, Robert T. Starks recently wrote, “…when rookie Illinois Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States, the African-American political leadership, academics, and opinion leaders began a protracted and sometimes heated debate over the propriety of an African-American Agenda to be presented to the presidential candidates. The debate continued throughout the primary season. Initially, the candidacy of Senator Obama was not taken seriously by most of these political actors because of the fact that he was a little known quantity. However, when he won the Iowa caucuses it became clear that he deserved a closer look.”
Longing for empowerment, and weighted by a dramatic tradition, many of these political actors of the ‘sit-in’ generation pulled up late to ‘house Obama’. Mr. Starks, who has been deeply involved in various aspects of political engagements points out that, “While Senator Obama had gained the attention of the black public…most were still unconvinced that he could win the nomination and the presidency. In the meantime, the debate continued without an agreement to begin the process of ascertaining the collective needs of the national African-American community and conveying them to the candidates.”
There certainly was some tension between the “post-racial” transformational campaign of the “skinny kid with a funny sounding name” and the “elders”. Those fault lines, driven by intangibles, those jokes, those habits, those recipes passed down in the average African American household differ from those in the homes of young Barack Obama, in Indonesia, in Hawaii. He wasn’t home wrapped and emerged from a different historical landscape. Some of these “elders” would not be moved, and behaved like a former lover wanting to leave behind pajamas or underwear to be remembered by. When such need is acted out in public, you don’t really want to give a "fist bump”, and just say “cool”, not even in the Obama universe. That racial/political gyroscope continued to challenge the then president-elect in the person of his U.S. Senate replacement and other matters tentatively left behind in Illinois.
“Black political actors were reluctant to put race specific request on the table for fear that it would dampen the white enthusiasm and support that he had gained in the early primaries”, Prof. Starks continued, “The same justification for a lack of an African-American Agenda, or wish list, became even more amplified when it was clear that Senator Obama was destined to be the nominee of the Democratic Party.”
There is an odd and fumbling kinship here with Starks and the thoughts of scholar James MacGregor Burns when the latter recently wrote, “Transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. Leadership”, he says, “is still in its infancy, and we’ve only began to explore follower-ship.”
Gerald Early, of Washington University, appearing in the October 10, 2008 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, The End of Race as We Know It, suggests, “The presidential campaign of Barack Obama has raised the question of what happens to the black American meta-narrative of heroic or noble victimization if he wins. (Presumably nothing happens to it if he loses; the loss can be blamed on racism, as it will, in fact, be another example of victimization. White folks will always find a way to cut down a successful black man, to not let him get too far, is the common belief. That sort of black cynicism, expressed in different political and aesthetic modalities, underscores both the blues and rap. If Obama loses, he becomes, in black folklore, John Henry, the “natural” man with the courage to go up against the political machine. The moral of the tale, in politics as in life, is that the machine always wins.).”
Prof. Early added, “Many of us black professionals, members of the black elite, keep the embers of our victimization burning for opportunistic reasons: to lev-erage white patronage, to maintain our own sense of identity and tradition. In some respects, this narrative has something of the power in it endurance that original sin does for Christians. In fact, our narrative of victimization is America’s original sin, or what we want to serve as the country’s original sin, which may be why we refuse to give it up.” Continuing he writes, “We have used it shamelessly—especially those who are least entitled to do so, as we have suffered the least—hustled it to get over on whites, to milk their guilt, to excuse our excesses and failures. Being the victim justifies all ethical lapses, as the victim has turned into a sucker’s game, the only possible game that the weak can play against the strong with any chance of winning.”
That story, or at least part of it, will continue as dogma for a while, and highlight disconnects, mis-concepts, and perhaps political maturation failures of Mr. Starks and his crew. For those who perceive the election of Mr. Obama as yet another forum in which to continue the discourse on race and the African American narrative, there’s an awakening unfolding, as to the presence of others awaiting seats at his eschatological banquet.
U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, for example, have wasted no time warning the president-elect against enacting an “evil law” that would deregulate the “abortion industry.” Pope Benedict XVI sent the president-elect a congratulatory telegram hailing his “historic” election, and Mr. Obama, a Protestant, called the pontiff to thank him for his message. The two men hold differing views on gay marriage and stem cell research, as well as abortion. There is wiggle room there, however, and no shame, in placing the agenda of one whose resume gives space to ‘Hitler Youth’ at the bottom of ones check-off list.
At about the same time, Dr. Clayton Smith, a U.S. born hematologist now heading the leukemia and bone marrow transplant program of Vancouver, British Columbia, was quoted as saying he was, “literally in tears” over the election of stem-cell-research supporter Barack Obama. “Watching the election last night was a singular event, like watching the Berlin Wall fall,” he said. Here, the Oba inherits a layup.
On another front, like shards of a broken mirror, the immigration reform issue also awaits “the one”. This son of a foreign exchange student and nephew of an illegal immigrant is expected, by a constituency of Hispanic voters which turned out 66% for him, to halt large scale federal immigration raids. As many as 12 million illegal immigrants are said to be in the U.S. With increasing unemployment in the country, many hold more vigilant border security and less immigration is the way to preserve Americans’ jobs. Others now press for a path to legal residency. Trenches and barricades are sure to find their way into both sides of the issue and the incoming administration will hardly go unruffled.
The Pew Research Center reported that then Senator Obama captured the White House by securing the support of a number of key groups solidly in the center of the electorate. 39% of Mr. Obama’s voters were Democrat with 32% being Republican. This was a significant shift from 2004 when the electorate split even. White voters went 43% for Mr. Obama; 55% for McCain: Black voters went 95% for Mr. Obama and 4% for Mr. McCain: Hispanic voters turned out 66% for Sen. Obama and 32% for Sen. McCain.
The Center’s numbers also reflect a breakdown among white voters as: 41% men for Obama; 57% for McCain: 46% women for Obama; 53% for McCain. Hispanics voted for Sen. Obama over Sen. McCain more than two-to-one, 67% verses 31%.
When it comes to race and the vote, 21% of voters said they personally knew those who would not vote for Barack Obama because he is black. Supporters of Mr. Obama were more likely to know someone who would not vote for him based on race (27%) than were those who supported McCain (10%). Some 21% white and 22% black respondents said they knew someone who wouldn’t vote for Obama because he is black. There’s no difference based on age or gender, but college grads were more likely than those with less education to know someone not supporting Obama because of race (36% vs. 18%).
That perpetual, “most important election ever” theme, played every campaign, took on a more surreal and menacing tambour this time. This campaign in particular could ill afford to be quixotic. Yet it was all promissory, and in that space since Election Day, many have struggled for signs of the administrations direction. One can be blinded by the charm, coolness of President-elect Obama. But a lack of linkages has followed his public career. Like Leviticus, allegiance to the gentleman may become difficult and visions hard to follow as all those expectations and get past the stage of euphoria. Question Him? Good luck with that. His ‘handlers’ tag that ‘cynicism’. It’s complicated. If it doesn’t sing the right tune, you can lose friends that way amongst both the chic and sanctified. But does it really take two years and a million or so dollar enterprise to elicit electoral enlightenment?
Another post-election survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds grater satisfaction with the choice of the presidential candidates than after any election in the past 20 years. In addition, Mr. Obama gets by far the highest grades for any winning candidate in that period. “When voters are asked for a single word that describes their reaction” to Mr. Obama’s victory, supporters mentioned their joy with words like, “happy”, “excited”, and “ecstatic” frequently used. A substantial number also mentioned the words “hope” or “hopeful” to characterize their reaction to the election. For now, it’s all good.
Early Obama devotees insist that he now must claim a progressive agenda. They want the president-elect to ‘go big’. Out of a desire to remain loyal, some have become somewhat apologetic on his starting late. “Give it time”, they say, “he’s not even president yet.” Nonetheless, as the rollout of cabinet appointees and staff steadily continue, the expectations among other liberals have begun a decline.
Many of those thrilled by candidate Barack Obama, have began expressing concern. Journalist/author, Naomi Klein was recently quoted, “If you actually look at his policies, what they reflect is the triumph of the right-wing political paradigm since Reagan, and I think he could set things back dramatically, because for young people who are getting engaged in politics for the first time, for them to be disillusioned is very, very damaging.”
Continuing, Ms. Klein says, “The “yes We Can’ slogan means whatever you want it to mean. It’s very ‘Just Do It. When you hear is, you catch yourself thinking, Yeah! We’re gonna end torture and shut down Guantanamo and get out of Iraq! And then you think, Wait a minute, is he really saying that? He’s not really saying that, is he? He’s saying we’re going to send more troops to Afghanistan. He’s telling regular people what they want to hear, and then in the back rooms he’s making deals and signing on to the status quo.”
Nowhere is this more glaring than the picks for the incoming president’s centrist to center-right, national security team and his own pre-election posturing as an ardent opponent to the Iraq war. Mr. Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, a former senior Clinton advisor is a hard-line supporter of Israel’s “targeted assassination” policy an volunteered to work with the Israeli Army during the 1991 Gulf War. In Congress, Mr. Emanuel voted for the invasion of Iraq, and unlike many of his colleagues, continues to defend his vote. An article on Antiwar.com stated, Emanuel, “advocates increasing the size of the U.S. Army by 100,000 soldiers” and creating a domestic spying organization similar to Britain’s MI5. Under President Clinton, he was one of the principals in passing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Throughout his campaign, Mr. Obama separated himself from the field by highlighting his opposition to the war in Iraq from its beginning. Repeatedly, the candidate promised to begin to end the war on his first day as president. Now, however, not only has every proposed member of this team been supportive of the Iraq war at some point, some more so than others, then President-elect Obama said he’d begin to “design a plan for a responsible drawdown,” on his first day in office. Lately, he described his earlier ‘differences’ as ‘magnified’ during a ‘campaign’ season.
During his campaign, candidate Obama also committed to taxing the windfall profits of oil companies and the repeal of the ‘Bush’ tax cuts for the wealthy and redistributing that money to the middle class. Now President-elect, Obama assumes a more cautious posture, saying he will not enact the former, and will simply permit the latter, the tax cuts, to expire come the end of 2010.
Although Mr. Obama spoke repeatedly spoke out against broken politics, a significant number of his appointments are current or previous office holders, President Obama has appointed two governors, a former governor and former mayor, two senators and three members of congress.
That said, we must acknowledge, in this celebratory time, there is something systemically structurally atrocious with the way America elects its heads of state, members of Congress, the Senate and the casual manner in which ‘we the people’ have allowed the ‘campaign’ industry to flourish and grow, promoting special interest candidates and candidates that cannot possibly deliver on promises made.
At this point it would be a waste of time to argue the nuance of a grand, master plan or message crafted for by Obama’s handlers. Neither a swarm of locusts, nor the parting of Lake Michigan brought the nation to this time. It was more the tawdry legacy of administration after administration failing to hit a mark. It was justice denied “long time”, it was a frenetic and a fumbling dis-ingenuous opposing camp, and it was a list of criminal wars of choice, and the wails of millions craving tangible and substantive change.
Those who’ve grown way tired and sought alternatives to just muddling though. And it was the permanent campaign…an opportunity for the well funded campaign to re-invent itself again and again to hit and hold it’s mark.
The campaign lap dance, convincing some they’d held a chit with the new administration, is not without irony with the dot’s failing to connect at this point. Like the death of a parent or a dream, there’s little wiggle room. The November story has not held legs or wheels for that matter, for Democrats in Georgia or Louisiana, where there have been post Election Day losses to Republicans. Progressive activists have expressed their displeasure
“Many who argued against the idea of an agenda believe that the non-race specific approach taken by Senator Obama was one of the major reasons for his success”, continued Prof. Starks. “…the fact that almost every other racial, ethnic and representatives of social causes known. The Jewish community made it known from the beginning that for any candidate to get their votes they had to pledge their support for Israel. The Hispanic community…for a…humane and liberal approach to the problems of immigrants in general. Gay activist pressed for elimination of discrimination in the workplace…laws that will outlaw hate crimes. Feminist groups…for the closing of the income gender gap and…prevention of the repeal of Roe v Wade. Now,” ask Starks, “who will construct the African-American Agenda?” This must be disturbing for Prof. Starks as well as his cohort willing to extend the incoming presidents ‘sell-by date. Criticism of the President is not encouraged. Yet there has been an expectation of a change of tone.
Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, questioned, “Who do we Americans think we are?” He continued, “This is a cultural question, and it is worth asking: many of the great issues in American public life are ultimately cultural issues. The relation of the well-off to the poor; the meaning and the future of race and ethnicity; the degree to and manner in which we share responsibility for the aged, the sick, the needy; even our mission and place among the world's nations: all these depend on our sense of ourselves as a people -- that is, as a cultural reality. In other words, these social issues depend on how we remember ourselves.”
The new administration would be ill advised to comfortably bask for long in the present glow. To simply establish episodes of “Survivor: The White House” with the belief thinking ‘change’ will bring change. It can begin with an immediate revisiting of the ‘process’, the tired ‘permanent campaign’, the mechanics of which confuse prose and poetry with flawed policies.
As my friend Mr. Pinsky continued, “Though the United States assuredly is a great nation, the question remains open whether we are a great people or are still engaged in the undertaking of becoming a great people. A people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory,” and vision I might add. In short, the current new age triangulation of the new Obama administration is hardly fresh. For this President, it’s an ‘away game’ and should be played as one.
Broad stripes and bright stars are no substitute for substantive ‘change’. In it’s centrist posturing for the 2010, 2012 elections, the Obama presidency may well be little more than a souvenir for those who’ve wailed and waited and sought change for so long.
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