Let's start this one in Iraq. Not because of the way the political leadership has dealt with the country, or because of the importance of the war as a central issue during most of the first decade of the twenty-first century. No instead, lets take it from the point of view of an officer serving in a fairly obscure part of the country, in a fairly obscure post, following the political events of his country back home. It is 2004, it is clear that John Kerry is going to be up against Bush the wretched and his minions, and there is the sense that maybe he can be beaten. And at least the election is going to be close.
And there is this rising star young politician that the officer hears of, and is intrigued. And the officer - for it is I - having been disappointed by Howard Dean - is impressed more and more by what he hears and reads. So much so, that when in conversation with a fellow officer who happened to be African-American, mentions this rising young very eloquent politician, is surprised that she hasn't yet heard of him. "Well" I say, "when you do hear more of him. . . .and you will. . .I think you're going to really like him. You might say he is what the U.S really needs right now, even with the war hero going up against the Texas laughing boy."
Needless to say, the politician who, from 6,530 miles away, I had identified as an up and comer was the Democratic candidate for the junior Senator from Illinois, a mixed race University of Chicago law professor with a name that should have disqualified him for any kind of national office, Barack Hussein Obama. I had a bit of a funny name too. I had been raised by a single mother. I got through a good school on wits and scholarship. What's not to like?
It is very likely that the Democratic convention in Boston in late July 2004 will be remembered a century in the future chiefly because this is where Barack Obama was introduced to the world, with an amazing speech, an amazing delivery and an amazing biography, now very familiar to everyone. Born in Hawaii to mixed parents, raised in part abroad, and partly by his white maternal grandparents, scholarship winner to Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Law school, community organizer in Chicago, law professor and a politician both canny and very fortunate, it is truly a story that in his words in 2004 could have happened in no other country on earth. In a way, it was like the speech that another obscure Illinois politician had given in Cooper union in New York almost 150 years ago . . .and that had led to the presidency in an even more serious crisis than the one facing the country in the future.
The speech was in fact so popular, and although not exactly espousing radical new ideas in politics, seemed so much a breath of fresh air that the then Senator Barack Obama wrote a book, expanding on the ideas called, with the perfect choice of words that described the man much more than the basic idea, "The Audacity of Hope".
It is not that 'Hope' is so audacious in its own right, at least not in an advanced Western democracy. True it is regrettably in short supply among many Americans; one of the reasons to be a Democrat in fact. But the word choice is so correct - the word 'audacity' is so apt - not because of the ideas, but because of the author, the aforementioned mixed race professor with a different name actually having the audacity to think he could seriously compete for the big enchilada in American politics, well, what could be more audacious than that?
Back in 2007, a few months after Obama had announced his candidacy for president in very Lincolnian fashion on the steps of Springfield Illinois, there was a nice detailed article in the New Yorker by Larissa McFarquhar called "The Conciliator" which kind of sealed the deal for me, at least in terms of who had the temperment to be the next commander in chief. Everyone knew who he was, of course, though few thought he would be successful; clearly there were heavy hitters in the Democratic party who had the chops to be president over this young guy. But he was running, a player on the national scene and hence a fitting subject for this very well written piece. Heck you can read it here
This is the money quote in the piece for me:
Obama’s detachment, his calm, in such small venues, is less professorial than medical—like that of a doctor who, by listening to a patient’s story without emotional reaction, reassures the patient that the symptoms are familiar to him. It is also doctorly in the sense that Obama thinks about the body politic as a whole thing. If you are presenting a problem as something that they have perpetrated on us, then whipping up outrage is natural enough; but if you take unity seriously, as Obama does, then outrage does not make sense, any more than it would make sense for a doctor to express outrage that a patient’s kidney is causing pain in his back.And then even more significantly:
"If you’re a black male, you don’t have to try hard to impress people with your aggression,” Haywood [an investor and friend of Obama] says. “There was a period when black politicians started to be successful, and it was understood that if you wanted to be mainstream you’d better have gray hair. Doug Wilder was an example. David Dinkins. Mayor Bradley in L.A. To be popular with the broader white electorate, you’d better look safe, you’d better not look angry. Now, I don’t think Barack made a conscious decision to come across this way, but it is a happy accident. Some people may have seen his speech at the Democratic Convention, or heard that he rocked the house, and they may be disappointed, but the mainstream is not ready for a fire-breathing black man.” (It seems likely that, consciously or not, Obama has learned from these examples, and knows that the election of a President Obama wouldn’t mean a revolution in race relations, any more than women prime ministers were a sign of flourishing feminism in South Asia. Bigotry has always made exceptions.)Now if you believe, as I do, that the article, the speech, and the 'Audacity' book really form seamless parts of the whole; that Barack Obama really believes in what he says, then nothing in the book, or in the election should really come as that much of a surprise. I'll get to the ways the book foreshadows what happened in 2008 and beyond in a bit; what is notable in the first pages and stays with one throughout is how darned conciliatory he is, not just as strategy or for love of lack of drama, but also that seems a basic part of his makeup. I mean, he doesn't get very far into his book before he gives some measure of praise to Ronald Reagan, but, being evenhanded, does note that firing the air traffic controllers may just have set American labor on its ruinous course to the detriment of the broader middle class. And I don't think it is too much of looking at the book through 2012 eyes to be astonished at the following quote "When I see Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity baying across the television screen, I find it hard to take them seriously; I assume they must be saying what they do primarily to boost book sales or ratings, although I do wonder who would spend their precious evenings with such sourpusses". Um, well, senator, they actually do believe every word they are saying; the day will come when they call you Antichrist, and people spend their 'precious' evenings listening to them because they tell them what they want to hear.
In fact, here is a good time to introduce a map from the New York Times, showing by color code whether a county went more democratic or more Republican in 2008, compared with 2004. This after the weakest republican candidate, hamstrung both by an incompetent incumbent and a reality-show idiot as a V.P. Notice a certain geographic pattern in This Map ?
But, on the other hand. . .you know for us professors there is always an other hand. . .there is a certain need for conciliation as well, because either 'side' - and like the President in his book I fall almost by default into a certain Manichean view of politics in which their is our side and the dark side - is a substantial part of the country, and is not going away anytime soon. Let us, in fact, look at another map in which the counties have been color coded again, but this time they are blue or red to the extent they vote Democrat or Republican, and the closer the counties are, the more purple they become:
Now there seems to be much more red here then blue, but most of you reading this know that many of the red counties are rural and sparsely populated, and so just look big. Well it turns out you can correct for population so that all the map become geographically inaccurate, it becomes demographically much more so:
And I would submit what springs out from this homunculus of an electorate is a country that seems divided between one third hard blue, one third hard red and one third middling puple. Which pretty much parallels the numerical portrait of America. There is in fact a blue America and a Red America; they just mix uneasily and incompletely as a united States of America. But of course, that is not so poetic on the stump of a campaign speech
I have very little doubt that Obama was seriously considering a run for President when he wrote his book, and it is not because of the evenhanded, very political tone; as mentioned I think that is the way he truly is, for good and bad. The book is a disquisition, a way of thinking about politics, faith, values, the meaning of the filibuster, the way the senate works, the pressure a politician is under from both his or her opposition and his or her own base. I am pleased to report there is even a mention of Daily Kos in the book, and characteristically too; he wanted to respond to us fiery leftists who objected to members of the Democratic party voting to confirm John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, even though he seems well on the way to rolling back civil rights, environmental rules, women's reproductive freedom, workers rights and pace his affordable care act ruling, genuine efforts to reform health care, which means make it so everyone can get it if they need it. Seems to me the preceding is sort of what Democrats are kind of supposed to stand for.
And yet, although the book is not the kind of delicious rant from say, a Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, or our own Hunter there are fun parts of it. His description of Alan Keyes, for example (a sort of Pre-Allen West, as it were) is on, including the part where he says that when he saw him he strongly felt the urge to taunt him or wring his neck. Similarly, he does ridicule a fellow Illinois state senator, a Republican, naturally, who fulminates one day about a school lunch program, and how it will crush their spirit of self-reliance if they were to be provided breakfast. Obama uses this all too true example to differentiate between values and ideology, especially given the fact that not too many five year olds are self-reliant; I would say that ideology is very useful in revealing what one's core values really are, such that many Republican politicians don't really give a shit about poor children.
There is the old saying that in an attempt to please everyone, one runs the very real hazard in actually pleasing no one. . .and looking weak in the process. . .and although this is a bit unfair to hang on such a fervent conciliator, who has the audacity (that word again) to believe that is what people fundamentally want. Awhile ago, the President was asked the standard question to the effect that what he thought his biggest error was in his first term. He stated that the error was the messaging; that he'd underestimated the amount of campaigning the job required even after he had won it. Now I disagree, and I am not sure he wasn't being a bit politic in the answer; but the elision is instructive: in fact his biggest error, surely, was misjudging the depth and nature of the political opposition he would face in bringing what to him were (and are) very rational, even centrist measures to improve the country, handle the economic meltdown, create jobs and further America's rational interests overseas. To the extent he succeeded was because of ability, his own and others. To the extent he failed, it was because his opposition conceded nothing, and he seemed genuinely surprised that his political enemies, unconstrained by facts, would jeopardize the economic health of the country simply to oppose him. It never occurred to Obama that opposing him was all they had; bankrupt of new ideas, having seen their ideology crash, they were on their way to irrelevance, and I have never ever heard of a party voting to dissolve itself. Here is the conciliator again; he talks extensively of the need for health care reform in his book without ever mentioning single payer, public options, Medicare for all or even the individual mandate (remember he ran against Clinton on that issue), and yet he is demonized for bringing 'Socialized Medicine' to the country; his discourse on race are measured and rational (indeed his chapter on race is the highlight of the book and worth the price) yet seems to bring out the lynch mob mentality more than any other politician I recall seeing. And of course he is condemned - and likely will be so again in the upcoming debate - for 'vastly increasing the size of government' or 'our debt' or some such bullshit, and yet the facts. . hey here is the last chart I am going to introduce into this literary discussion, the one that show how much non-defense, discretionary spending has really grown in this country, even in the face of the worst economy since the depression and an unemployment rate crying out for active intervention:
These caps were what was added on to the congress in 2011 as part of the budget reconciliation, signed by our conciliator in chief.
And yet, I have never soured on the man, nor had any sympathy for those who had, even given the litany of issues, disappointments and things that would not only have been more progressive, but I think ultimately more popular. This is not just mere tactics; although anything less than Democratic unity behind him will spell defeat, and no one wants a rerun of 2000. It is not even because of the issues I agree with him. . .I confess to being more with the President then with some of my fellow progressives over the odd issue or two, primarily the economic ones (although I strongly supported OWS). It is really, finally, that quality Obama speaks about in the book and that I completely agree is in short supply: that of empathy. Empathy is not agreement, it does not mean blind acknowledgement, but it does mean understanding. . .and mercy, even to those whom you disagree with, because maybe you see why they are hurting themselves everytime they vote against their own interests (clinging to their guns and religion you might say, another quote adumbrated in the book). Indeed it the fundamental lack of it that most characterizes his current opponent, and in a way, everything I personally loathe about the Republicans, and how can you be against someone who puts their finger right on the issue?
I shall finish in the President's own words, one I think he still reads over, especially as his Washington D.C view is even better these days:
At night, the great shrine is lit but often empty. Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr King's mighty cadence, and then beyond that, to the floodlight obelisk and the shining Capitol dome.How audacious, really.
And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. . . .all the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams.
It is that process I wish to be part of
My heart is filled with love for this country