This election is shaping into something more profound than I had expected: A contrast not merely of talents, personalities, and agendas, but of two fundamentally different and incompatible versions of the American Dream. One version epitomizes the hopes and aspirations of all mankind, and has been a case in point of why this nation is more than the sum of its parts. The other is a lie, demonstrating the shallow mockery of those aspirations in the life of a man who creates nothing and adds nothing to the world, but simply accumulates wealth at other people's expense as an end in itself. One of these Dreams seeks to extend the opportunities that made it possible to all Americans, the other to burn the bridges behind it so that none may follow.
In the life and Presidency of Barack Obama, we find that courage, inspiration, and determination overflow: A child of two races and a divided home following his mother to the other side of the world, living among diverse peoples and learning about the many commonalities that unite us, the differences that enrich us, and the mutual blindness that stymies our better natures.
By the time he was a grown man, Barack Obama had come to know friends and family all over the world - in Hawaii, Chicago, Massachusetts, Kansas, California, Ireland, Indonesia, and Kenya, if not even more places - from living with his mother, living with his grandparents, pursuing his education as a young man, traveling for its own sake, and pursuing his career as an adult. Every step of the way, he learned, and other people learned with him. On talent and passion alone, he attended Harvard Law School and won distinction; broke into the Chicago political machine, again on talent and passion alone; and all along the way brought more people to see the potential, brilliance, and humanity of a skinny, nerdy black guy with a very unusual name.
The world rejoiced on January 20, 2009 - rejoiced to be reminded that there is a heart of truth to the claims Americans often make about our country, but far too rarely demonstrate. Rejoiced to know that we, as a nation, were not represented by the preceding eight years under the thumb of a maniac. That we could turn things that far around without a civil war awed people both at home and abroad, and that the man we chose to be the focus of our healing was black, liberal, young, and had an exotic name drove the point home: At least some of the time, America really is a land of opportunity where people of merit can aspire to literally anything regardless of background.
For the first time ever, America could mean the same thing to all peoples, everywhere: The poorest villager in some remote African country could know that their descendents might some day be leaders of wealthy, powerful countries where their skin color is in the minority. People with non-Anglicized names could know that, at least in the United States, their character and talent has a chance to overcome prejudice and xenophobia all the way to the top. We proved that, at our best, we truly are the nation of nations, where all people can come and be one - E Pluribus Unum, in vivo.
From the lofty height of that accomplishment, the mere facts of his Presidency seem prosaic: Passing new civil rights legislation, extending health care to millions of people who didn't have it, rescuing the American automotive industry (and by extension the last remaining bastion of US manufacturing), saving millions of skilled jobs from destruction in the economic conflagration created by Republican policies, starting the first major reinvestment in American infrastructure in generations, avenging 9/11 with the death of Osama Bin Laden, ending the Iraq War, allowing gays to serve their country in the military, committing the nation to pursuing clean energy, and rebuilding international respect and affection for the United States destroyed by George W. Bush are just a few of the items one could cite. The list keeps growing, even in the face of obstruction from a Republican Congress that would rather America fail so the GOP can blame the President for its own depravity and corruption.
For the first time in generations, we have a President who exhibits the best qualities of the American people rather than the worst or being a cuddly mediocrity who simply fails to offend most of us. We have a President who makes intelligent, common-sense decisions that a standard-issue politician would be too wrapped up in gamesmanship to even consider, and yet a leader who is nonetheless competent at navigating political context. It is the first time in a very long time that a President can unambiguously be said to be motivated by an intention to do his job well, and to do right by the people of the United States of America. That is the American Dream Barack Obama represents: To start out nowhere, climb the highest mountain, and then lower a rope that others may follow. That is THE American Dream - the one and only true purpose of this nation.
And then there is Willard "Mitt" Romney. He is the son of a man who to some extent realized one version of the true American Dream - to be a productive entrepreneur - and an example of what too often happens next, when the profits of the previous generation become the entitlements of the next: The accomplishment, and appreciation for what it means, is unfortunately not something that can be inherited. Mitt Romney did not follow in his father's footsteps as an entrepreneur, but chose instead to be a man whose sole occupation was throwing other people's productive enterprises on the fire to create money for himself and his clients. The hard work of men like his father and their employees became his prey - the fuel to feed a simple quest for money unburdened by any wider responsibility or vision.
Such crypto-patricide is a perfect emblem of what Romney's version of the American Dream represents to this country - a dream not of excellence, innovation, or creativity, but of advantage gained through predatory cunning, and wanton sacrifice of America's legacy for a quick personal cash infusion. His is the dream sold to this country by ciphers and sociopaths from Ronald Reagan onward: The one-dimensional, hollow compulsion to acquire at other people's expense what you lack the talent and passion to create for yourself. Romney and other subscribers to this nihilistic, Gordon Gekko species of ambition do not measure their success by what they create - they can't, because they create nothing - but merely by what they own. What they control. What they deny to others.
The highest ambition of this dream is to be a person whose sole occupation - indeed, sole identity - is to be one who enjoys the benefits of society created by others, defends their own entitlement by accumulating and exercising power rather than trying to justify it, and maximizes the amount of that benefit even if the result is harmful to society in general. This could just as easily be a description of medieval lordship as modern corporate corruption, and unfortunately it's also a description of the kind of man Mitt Romney is. As far as I can tell, he does not want to be President because he has any actual ideas, or because he has any intention of making this country a better place for its people. To all appearances, Mitt Romney simply wants to be President for the same reason he wants money: Because he considers wealth and power his birthright, and the definition of success by which he measures himself.
Unfortunately, the greatest success in this horror-movie burlesque version of the American dream is to have everything while everyone else has nothing - the ultimate ego-trip - and for all intents and purposes that is Mitt Romney's plan for America. Unsatisfied with merely paying a lower tax rate than people who make far less than what he does, Mitt Romney and those in his tax bracket who subscribe to his politics want to enjoy all of the benefits of this nation and give back nothing whatsoever. They believe it is the natural order of things that some few (themselves, of course) exist solely to enjoy the fruits of society, while it is the lot of everyone else to provide them.
Maybe that would have been the American Dream if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, but in this world, in this country, Romney's picture of this nation and its values is a lie and an abomination. Everything he stands for, everything his attitudes represent, flies in the face of everything the American people have ever accomplished. He and his Party do not intend to write another chapter in the book of American history - they intend to close the book and throw it in the fireplace for kindling. They will liquidate this nation's economy as surely as a corporate raider turning generations of work into a pocketful of quick cash, and then fly off to some more convenient country when the piper comes calling. That is Mitt Romney's American Dream - to be the best vulture he can be, and pick at the flesh of a struggling nation he considers his property rather than his family.
While the man himself is no great monster, he is a mediocrity and a dullard who offers America nothing in return for his demand to lead - no new ideas, a bunch of dogmatic right-wing policies that have been discredited for decades, and no personal case for himself other than that he is good at being selfish and unproductive, which in his Party is considered a moral virtue. Frankly, the very existence of Romney's campaign is a tragic farce, and yet no less threatening for it: A man who more or less says he should be President simply because his desires it, a Party whose claim to power is no more rational or justified, and a nation divided enough in both morality and intelligence to seriously consider either argument.