The morning after History was made

Calls for ‘epochal Obama’ to get on with ‘ordinary politics’ show how small the political imagination remains.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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Many Americans got caught up in a sense of history-in-the-making when Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States. When Obama was a child, segregation still existed in many parts of the country, and now his election seemed to be a triumph over that past. America’s narrative of race altered overnight, to a more hopeful one of greater tolerance. The famous statement of American promise – any child can grow up to be president – seemed to move closer to reality.

At the same time, the election of a black president had the feeling of politics finally catching up with society. Overt racial discrimination has (thankfully) receded in the country over recent decades. Obama himself was warmly greeted as a potential national figure after he gave his 2004 speech at the Democratic Party National Convention, and upon launching his election campaign in 2007, his race was never seen as central to his candidacy in the way that, say, Jesse Jackson’s was when he ran for the White House. That said, the fact that society was clearly open and ready for a black president did not make its realisation this week seem any less significant or moving.

And so, Barack Obama’s name will forever be associated with being the first black president – no matter how successful or not his presidency may be. In that sense, it is factually true that his ascent to the White House is historic.

But it is quite another thing to get carried away with the supposed world-historical significance of electing Obama, as if it was on par with broader changes in society and politics that we have seen before. Since Obama’s emergence on the national stage, a section of the punditry has fawned over him, and now his election has brought that out again. William Greider in the Nation highlighted great changes to come and struck a self-congratulatory note: ‘The changes will spread through American life in ways we cannot yet fully imagine. Let us congratulate ourselves on being alive at such a promising moment.’ (1) Historian John Baick says everything has changed: ‘From this day forward, politics, politicians and the people they serve will never be the same.’ (2)

In Britain, Channel 4’s uber-liberal newsreader Jon Snow calls Obama’s election a ‘staggering, indescribable moment’, which ‘is up there equaling any political event since the downing of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela’ (3). And not to be outdone by anyone, Oprah Winfrey – who was very influential in getting Obama’s campaign off the ground – said: ‘This is the most meaningful thing that has ever happened.’ (4)

This history hype is over the top. Obama hasn’t even set foot in the Oval Office. His historical significance is unlikely to be fully understood until well after he is gone. And if he has any luck, he will be remembered more for what he achieves in office rather than being simply the first black president.

With all the frothy hype starting to bubble over, it is worth providing, as they say in America, a reality check. Despite his lofty rhetoric, Obama has not put forward ambitious policy changes. Obama has been compared with some of the big-name presidents of the past, but he has not proposed anything as sweeping and memorable: FDR had the New Deal, JFK had the space programme, and Reagan had supply-side economics and moral renewal. And Obama has…? His current policy positions consist mostly of Clintonesque, small-bore stuff. He may eventually introduce something big and bold while in office, but he hasn’t yet.

Obama did not run his campaign based on issues; instead, he put his personal biography (who he ‘is’) front and centre. But if you look at what he has to say about issues, you see that he will not bring about fundamental change, and the changes he will introduce will not necessarily mean progress. For instance, take foreign policy: Obama won’t pull the troops out of Iraq immediately, is more aggressive than Bush on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and wants to expand NATO to Georgia and other countries. Furthermore, he says he will restore so-called humanitarian military interventions (like in Darfur) and thus will be arguably more interventionist than Bush.

Or the economy: with the arrival of the financial crisis, Obama (and other members of the elite) looked like a deer in the headlights. He did not offer any answers and during his debates he couldn’t say how he would adjust his spending plans. Add to that his recent emphasis in speeches on the need for ‘sacrifice’, it would seem he is softening people up for making austerity worthy.

Many seem to prefer a fantasy version of Obama, the liberal history-maker to the real politician. They treat Obama as a blank slate upon which to project their hopes. Back in June, Obama announced that he disagreed with a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty for child rapists. Liberals expressed outrage, but this said more about them than Obama – if they had paid attention to Obama’s real political record, they would have known that he has a history of opportunism and concessions to the right. We can expect more of these ‘how could he?!’ moments from disillusioned liberals in the future.

It is also noticeable, just one day after the election, how the extreme hype about a historic quake in world history has been coupled with demands for Obama to ‘get to work’ setting up his administration and get on with the boring stuff of government. It is as if the desire for Obama to make history and change the world is undermined by the sense that politics remains small-bore, managerial and dull, and that Obama has to, as New York Senator Chuck Schumer says, ‘roll up his sleeves and get to work right away’ rather than introduce major initiatives (5). In Britain, the former editor of the New Statesman, John Kampfner, described Obama’s victory as ‘epochal’ but then argued that we must return to ‘the daily grind of tough political decisions’ (6). Continually, a distinction is made between history and politics, as if the former is simply an occasional symbolic thing, and the latter is a necessarily down-to-earth and small-scale process. In this sense, the celebration of Obama’s victory seems to spring from and reinforce a broader sense that we cannot achieve great things in the real political arena. The grand horizons have been already doused by the traditional low expectations about what can be done in day-to-day politics.

Without indulging in the hype about Obama already transforming society, we can note that this election might represent a turning point in our politics. The broad support across the electorate that Obama received is one sign that something new might be happening. In particular, it is possible that, at least for the short term, Obama’s popularity will provide the governing elite with a new legitimacy that they have not had for some time. In fact, Obama is not just popular; he has been a phenomenon, holding rock star-like rallies. At the same time, however, maintaining legitimacy will require him to cohere his mandate via political ideas and actions, and so far that has been lacking.

In the cold light of day, the election of Obama – a politician who promises modest reforms in the face of challenging times – is not really an earth-shattering event. But an analogy with 9/11 may hold true here. After that attack, commentators said ‘nothing will be the same again’. Of course, the attack was shocking and the loss of life tragic, but it was hardly as if the US had returned to the Second World War or the Cold War. But if there is a consensus in society that an event is a major landmark, and people act differently as a result of that event, then it does in that respect become a major landmark in reality. The Obama phenomenon may take on that character because of a consensus that ‘everything has changed’ with his election. But still, that won’t turn Obama into an agent of economic and social change – he would need to do something ambitious in office for that to happen.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) President Obama: This Proud Moment, The Nation, 4 November 2008

(2) Obama’s transcendence is beyond race, Yahoo News, 5 November 2008

(3) A staggering indescribable moment, Channel 4 News, 5 November 2008

(4) The Stars in Chicago, CBNews, 4 November 2008

(5) Schumer: No honeymoon for Obama, 9WSYR, 5 November 2008

(6) After the afterglow, Guardian, 5 November 2008

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Topics USA


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