Wednesday, November 5, 2008

He's a man, not a symbol

Obviously I'm pleased that Barack Obama was elected president yesterday. While I don't agree with every one of his proposals, and I doubt that he'll be able to implement all of them anyway (and he realizes this; as he said in his stirring acceptance speech last night, "We may not get there in one year or even one term"), at least he comes off as an adult, in contrast to the smirking adolescent attention hogs we've put up with for the past 16 years. The challenges he faces are immense, many of them have little to do with the presidency, and calls for national sacrifice are noble-sounding but rarely answered. But, I believe he recognizes the size of those challenges and is not so bound by ideology that he'll overlook real solutions in favor of pandering to a know-nothing base.

I don't believe that I know the "real" Barack Obama, but I think he does, and the strength that comes from that self-knowledge will allow him to forge his own path. I will almost certainly not agree with every step he takes, but I trust the process. I sense a sincerity coupled with realism, and hope that he will make decisions relatively free of "political" considerations, that he will recognize that politics is about governing and leading, not simply about getting more votes.

About John McCain, I'm disappointed, as so many others are. His compelling personal narrative, while hardly automatic qualification for the presidency, coupled with his manner made him a person I wanted to root for, a rare Republican I might have been able to support (rare due to the unsavory place in which the party finds itself today).

But he never figured out who he was, likely because he was trying to calculate who he needed to be in order to get elected. His maverick image, never quite as justified as his friends in the media wished, seemed ultimately to result in self-consciousness, and led in part to the pick of the toxic Sarah Palin. There was a random quality to his campaign, leading to an inexplicable series of decisions, and that is most assuredly what we do not need in the White House. Had McCain won, I would support him, but I would have had to be convinced that he would find himself in the Oval Office; in the end, that's what my decision came down to, I suppose, that McCain was actually the riskier choice.

So Obama will be our president, and I will hope for the best.

As for the future...Because I live in the Chicago area, the local stations took over the coverage around the time of the acceptance speech, and that was as uninspiring as one can imagine. There were interviews with various local pols angling for Obama's Senate seat, and, naturally, the grindingly irrelevant Reverend Jesse Jackson. However, the dominant aspect of the coverage was a series of interviews with African-Americans who were crying and laughing (and, as a result, pretty poor interview subjects).

There was, it seemed, a need to find a larger story in the significance of this election as a step forward for African-Americans, and that story seemed to dominate the coverage. This seeped into the network coverage, but was not quite as prominent. And I have no doubt that this is a remarkable thing, that a black man could ascend to the highest office of a land in which, a relatively short time ago, he would have to drink out of a separate drinking fountain.

But there is also danger in coupling the man, Barack Obama, too closely to the symbol, first African-American president. There will be many people who watch him closely for any evidence of race-based favoritism, and will pounce at the slightest provocation. Obama received a lot of votes from whites and Hispanics, and they will feel betrayed if there is even a hint of reverse discrimination.

On the other side, the African-American population may well be looking for just the opposite, though I pray they will not. One of the secrets to Obama's success is that he is not a product of the urban black milieu; I guarantee you that this country is still not ready to elect Snoop Dogg. I don't think it's appropiate for me to comment on "how black" Obama is, as I'm not sure I even understand what that means. But most recent presidents have been perceived as the combination of diverse backgrounds; George Bush was a plain-talkin' Texan, to be sure, but he also had a Harvard MBA, which reassured (falsely, it turned out) voters who might have been reluctant to elect a guy whose major intellectual pursuit was clearing brush.

[There's a larger point here. Many pundits will suggest that voters prefer someone they feel comfortable drinking a beer with, which explains in no small part the success of Clinton and Bush. But that's a shallow view. I think voters do warm to certain personalities, but there also has to be a sense of underlying competence as well. Folksy charm is (probably too) important, but Clinton and Bush also had intellectual bona fides that justified support by a large mass of voters. That's where the Palin pick fell apart, she was all folksy charm with none of the mental heft, and you won't achieve a critical mass of voters with that combination.]

This puts Obama in an uncomfortable position, as he is the result of a huge amount of projection. His background is so diverse that almost everyone (well, 52 or so per cent) can find some common ground with him, whether it's race, or Hawaii, or Kansas, or the urban environment in which he worked, or on and on. In a real sense, there are a lot of people who believe that Obama is "like" them in some important aspect.

It will be almost impossible for Obama to fulfill all those expectations simultaneously, so it will be interesting to see how he will navigate those waters without creating a feeling of betrayal in one or more of his constituencies. I hope that we will all give him time to do that, and that we recognize that he really intends to be president of all of America, that no single issue reveals a turning of his back on one group or another. Compared to that, a couple of wars and a financial crisis should be no problem at all.

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