Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wishing President Obama Well

It would be good if President Obama managed a successful Presidency for lots of reasons. One of Reagan’s most overlooked achievements was that, prior to his Presidency, it was beginning to look like a successful two-term Presidency was no longer possible (Kennedy shot; LBJ broken by Vietnam; Nixon resigned in disgrace; Ford not elected; Carter, one-term failure). Moreover, unsuccessful Presidencies tend to have manifold unfortunate consequences. And it would be good to complete the I Have A Dream effect.

Having had black Senators, Secretaries of State, Supreme Court Justices and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the US now has a black President. Not only did he win the election, President Obama is only the third Democrat in 100 years to crack over 50% of the popular vote.

This is the most spectacular vindication of Martin Luther King's career and aspirations. In his gracious victory speech, then Senator Obama quoted the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln and used the same bible as the latter for his Inauguration oath.

It was in front of Lincoln's memorial, the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, that Martin Luther King gave one of the great speeches of the C20th, his I Have A Dream speech. There is a direct line from King's speech to Obama's victory.

Listening to Martin Luther King proclaiming in 1963 his hopes for his country, we can remind ourselves how far things have traveled within the life-time of the man who is now one of the US's youngest Presidents.

Even with all this, how are we to understand the avid extolling of Barack Obama's ascension to the Presidency? To the extent of merging idolatry with narcissism. Just as there was highly personalised animus against President George W. Bush, now there is amazing gushiness about President Obama. Some of it appears to be the result of transferring the search for transcendence that marks religion, mysticism, art, etc to politics: always a worry, since politics is such an unsuitable (indeed dangerous) vehicle for that. But a lot of it seems to the result of deeming political beliefs to be markers of personal character. This is also a dangerous move, and not merely because it is so destructive of civility in public life.
Yes, it is a fine thing that the United States of America has a President of African descent whose children (though not he himself) are the descendants of slaves. But that fine thing does not make Barack Hussein Obama anything more than a (gifted) politician. It is yet to be established whether he is an able President. Though I would agree his nominations and appointments are broadly encouraging, despite a remarkable tendency for misfires: even if on ethics, rather than capacity, grounds. I am distinctly underwhelmed by the stimulus bill and the continued groping on financial markets: still, it is early days yet.

It is also a mark of the worth of the United States of America as a polity, as a work-in-progress which embodies a great deal of human achievement. For that is the other grave error in the sanctification of some political actors and the demonisation of others. It undermines any sense of worth or virtue existing in institutions by hugely (over) elevating the worth (or lack of it) in particular people.

Which may also help explain a propensity to so over-personalise. If one sees oneself as part of an existing something larger, anchored in the past, extending into the future, then much less is invested in particular persons in the passing human parade. Victor Davis Hanson expresses this when he writes:
Whether Obama is President or McCain had won, no matter; it is still the US, and as a Jacksonian I pretty much pull for America … I never thought that only with the ascension of Reagan could I really be again proud of the US.

If, however, one feels various levels of alienation from actually existing institutions, traditions, society, then that passing parade is likely to emotionally matter far more. Marx, with his highly personalised vituperation of ideological opponents, exemplifies this tendency.

Moreover, the real is inevitably flawed. If one is comfortable with flaws, that also lessens the need to demonise and exalt. If, however, one has some standard of imagined perfection, then what goes against such imagined perfection is thereby worthy of demonisation, what moves towards it—or even embodies it—is to be exalted. One both extols an unreal (and thus unblemished) ideal while rating people according to their stated commitment to it: a form of collective narcissism.

A far less personalising approach to politics strikes me as both healthier—and better grounded—than investing huge emotional significance (for good or ill) in particular people: especially people who only really exist to us as public personas.

So, hope President Obama has a successful Presidency.

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