(Cross-posted, mostly intact, from planworld.)
“This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.” — BHO
W, a conservative friend of mine on Amherst’s online community, has written a reaction to Obama’s victory that was, all told, pretty measured and reasonable, although I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to hear it. In the bipartisan spirit that both Obama and McCain commended so eloquently to us last night, I will focus on the part that was both the truest and the hardest to accept:
“He’s just a politician. The things he’s said, the promises he’s made, are not within his power to effect.” — W
Admittedly, some reasonable hermeneutics could uncover areas of disagreement here (e.g. the implicit universal quantifier in the second sentence) — but the point is that, even with a unified Congress, Obama is not immune to any of the bullshit attendant to American politics, nor will he be granted powers above and beyond those granted to other presidents, some equally intelligent and with similar values, who didn’t fix everything either. And it remains to be seen whether the nobility and broad-mindedness expressed by both candidates last night will transfer meaningfully to the houses of Congress, where the rubber meets the road. And, hearing the leaders of various foreign powers express their joy at Obama’s victory this morning, I was happy to contemplate the rejuvenation of our image abroad, but also apprehensive: These countries are our competitors, in meaningful respects, and we have elected a man whose foreign policy experience is slim; perhaps their excitement is not an unalloyed good.
This is not, I hasten to insist, voter’s remorse. More to the point, it isn’t a repudiation of the idea that this moment is a fulcrum in history. But Obama himself did not create that fulcrum. Obama himself is, as W observes, nothing more than a smart man who ran a good campaign, a man who’s overall within about half a standard deviation of any given Democratic party talking point. Later, he could be more — and I have faith, whether well- or ill-founded, that he will be — but that is what he is right now.
“Will people maintain their enthusiasm and desire to make this country a better place? Or was this a one off for a unique historical circumstance?” — D
“It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.” — BHO
This is, of course, hackneyed sentiment, and “spirits” on the loose in the population do not exactly provide good grist for policy, especially when you don’t even know whether they exist yet, or ever did or will. Nonetheless, I think the success of the Obama presidency will turn on the answer to D’s question.
To continue in the spirit of hackneyed sentiment, with a grace note of grandiose pronunciamento: Obama is not important for what he is. Obama is important for what he helped us see in ourselves. His victory is our declaration of independence — not from an oppressive foreign power, but from a corrupting social force. The measure of our generation, just coming into the fullness of its power in the world, will be whether we rise to or shrink from the responsibility attendant to that independence.
There is every reason to think that we will shrink from it. Based on past performance, there’s every reason to think that I, personally, will shrink from it.
I’m not going to end on a note of optimism. I have so much hope for what Obama means for this country, but none of it is based on anything real — just my own reactions, my own perceptions, which may or may not be shared by enough people to have any meaningful impact. The only thing I can do is view his victory as a gift, and try, having accepted it, to deserve it.
I don’t know what this means for me. I just have a strong feeling that it had better mean something, or all this celebration, all this hope, will be politics as usual in the worst sense — effortful, expensive, trivial and transient. If I can care so much about this, and not be changed, then what does that make me?