Obama’s movement.gov

The American people will be forgiven for pinning all their hopes for change in their new president.  Desperate times summon individuals with magical qualities.  Barack Obama is indeed a man of great talent and tremendous charisma.  But he is as well a product of circumstances.  If he did not exist, it would be necessary for America to invent him.  Charisma is not a personal gift; it is a social relationship.

Obama pursued the presidency at a time when Americans have begun to doubt not just the trustworthiness of their leaders, but the adequacy of their government, the rationality of their institutions, and even their own capacity to solve their problems as one nation.  He offered himself to an America whose political, moral, and economic standing in the world has been seriously eroded.  To a people worn down by growing self-doubt, he preached the message of change. “Yes we can,” he told them.

That message resonated particularly with young Americans, with people who have never voted before, and with countless other Americans who had felt marginalized by the decision-making centers of their society.  Yet the movement of which they became a part did not contrapose itself against the existing political structure.  Instead, with Obama as its leader, it found its place and asserted its voice within the ranks of the Democratic Party.  Here they had to contend with the professional politicians that held control of the levers of American state power.  Despite the compelling symbolism that a grassroot movement offered, Obama did not run in the manner of the crusading Ralph Nader, campaigning for an alternative America. Rather, he sought and won the right to represent a mainstream political party by injecting a movement into it.

This strategy offers the promise of social change without triggering a conservative backlash. It seeks the revitalization of institutions, not their replacement.  It calls for renewal within the framework of a continuity of purpose.

Given the unpopularity of the Republican administration under Bush, the Democratic Party would still have won the presidency with Hillary Clinton, a more predictable politician.  But a Clinton presidency would not have been able to generate the same kind of energy that Obama’s candidacy unleashed.   The leaders of America knew that they needed that kind of energy to reconstitute the bond that alone could ensure the long-term survival of the country.  Obama was the man of the hour – by bringing the youth, the blacks, and the other minorities back into the groove of mainstream politics, he put a stop to the legitimacy crisis of the American social system.  By simply being elected as the first black president of the United States, Obama affirmed the validity of the American dream.

At a time when it needed it most, America not only recovered its selfesteem but also earned a lot of goodwill from the rest of the world. How it uses these, however, is another matter.  It is worth watching how the nation proceeds from here.  Obama knows that sheer charisma is not enough to override the rigidities and excesses of a system that has fed the prosperity of a few at the expense of the many.  But he hopes to use his power of persuasion to get people to work harder and accept sacrifices in order to repair a badly damaged economy.  One has to ask if the Obama administration has the will to dismantle the financial system that has been the cause of the economic turmoil it now faces, but, as well, of the unprecedented wealth that America has enjoyed since the mid-Seventies.  That unprecedented wealth – much of it encased in a bubble – spawned a whole culture of reckless consumerism fueled by credit.  But worse, it also subsidized a new phase of military adventurism.

That is why I was struck when at one point in his inaugural speech, I heard Obama say: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense….”  I’m sure he meant democracy.  But any US president who runs and wins on a platform of change cannot possibly leave the present American way of life unexamined.  To do so would be to replicate “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

Civil libertarians everywhere applauded when Obama addressed the corrupt dictators of this world: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  He might have had Kim Jong-il of North Korea or Robert Mugable of Zimbabwe in mind.  But, he could also have been speaking to Cuba, which is experimenting with a different social system. So, when he said: “We are ready to lead once more,” what exactly did he mean?  Given Obama’s liberal voting record in the US Senate, we must read this not as a renewed resolve to play the role of global policeman, but as a desire to use American power with humility, restraint, and responsibility.

For some strange reason, while listening to Obama’s inaugural speech, I kept hearing in the background, almost like a counterpoint, these immortal words from the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize lecture: “It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.”

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