The ‘messiah’ and the art of the possible
Guy Rundle reports on the party in Washington and how Obama’s speech marked a positive break with America’s recent past.
The doors of the restrooms at the Gallery Bar and Grill, a couple of blocks north of the White House, are wide open, and young women are rushing in and out in silk and taffeta, with pins and invisible tape, preparing for the ‘Home States’ gala ball down the road.
It’s eight in the evening of Inauguration Day, and the city is abuzz, one big party. There’s 10 official balls, dozens of unofficial ones and hundreds of parties round this heavily Democratic, heavily black city, and people are spilling out on to the streets from every open bar, tavern and hotel lobby. In a rare break with American Puritanism, the city authorities granted a four-day, 24-hour licence to all venues, and for many the party has been rolling along without a break since the weekend. ‘It’s been a long day’, says someone slumping onto the bar next to me. ‘It’s been a long eight years’. The whole bar laughs. There’s no chance a Republican will be here.
In fact, it’s worth remembering how differently this event is being greeted in places like Topeka, Salt Lake City, Dallas. Here in DC, it’s the pure release of victory achieved – finally, after a six-month primary, a gruelling election, a maddening transition period, with 35 words uttered over a Bible, Barack Hussein Obama is the forty-fourth President of the United States of America.
It was a long day indeed. For most of us, it began at 3am in the freezing winter dark, in order to be at the Metro stations by 4am when they opened so as to get into town before the system overloaded entirely. Even that didn’t guarantee a good spot on the Mall, the kilometre-or-so-long grass strip that runs between Congress and the Washington Monument. Thousands had camped out all night, wrapped in their coats (no tents allowed) to keep a spot where the ceremony itself would be directly visible. The rest of us had to make do with the ‘Jumbotron’ TV screens positioned along the Mall that would relay the ceremony direct.
By eight in the morning, the place was full; a surging crowd, half-a-million strong, with three hours to wait until the ceremony started. By 10.30, another million people had joined us, stretching back to the monument and beyond, a crowd the size of a small city, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The wind was sharp, but, in one of those cosmic free passes that Obama keeps getting, it died down for a few hours.
In the still, winter sunlight, a choir sang American anthems, the Marine band belted out some marches, and Aretha Franklin gave a powerful, subtle, beautiful, Motownish rendition of ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’. Joe Biden was sworn in as vice president and then a quartet starring Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Perlman did a variation of the old Appalachian song ‘Simple Gifts’, a quiet and reflective moment which prepared us for Obama’s swearing-in and the inauguration speech.
Obama and chief justice John Roberts, the swearer-in, fluffed the inauguration, but suddenly it was there. A second ticked over and the presidency went to a man who, practically speaking, could not have voted south of the Virginia border a half-century ago, well within the lifetime of many of the people crowding the Mall.
But if anyone thought that this was going to be a day of consensus, they were mistaken. Though the conventional pieties had been observed – Obama accompanied to the ceremony by the outgoing president, the officers of both parties honoured as they emerged onto the podium – the inauguration speech Obama gave was anything but conciliatory. Many had expected that he would go back to the style he had perfected in the Democratic primaries – oracular, transcendental, barely touching the ground – but they were wrong. Amazingly, Barack Obama gave by far the most politicised inauguration speech in the history of the genre, effectively condemning the administration that preceded him as a betrayal of the better part of America. The inaugural speech was concrete, programmatic and condemned a political culture that had fed off ‘petty grievances’, that avoided the real challenge. ‘It is time to put away childish things’, President Obama said, effectively condemning the culture wars that have dominated American political life for the last two decades.
For anyone who assumed that Obama’s cabinet choices – Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Robert Gates, Bush’s defence secretary, reconfirmed – indicated a retreat to a conservative and time-serving administration, the inaugural speech should come as a shock. The Obama administration is not going to be like that. In many ways, its policies will be objectionable – an extension of the war in Afghanistan, for example – but I think it is foolish to doubt its urge to reconstruct American economy and society, and the country’s wider relation to the world. This is a government that wants to be transformative, but its transformations will not map easily onto any left-right pattern. Some of them will be appalling; others will open up possibilities that have been absent for decades.
Obama’s inauguration speech was not a great one, but it seems that it was designed that way – prosaic, practical, unconsoling. It was a challenge to the US to stop living off its political fantasies, its narcissistic self-conception of providence, to stop living off the ideals of people who fought a revolution centuries ago.
The people in the Mall didn’t need to be told this – they had voted for Obama and waited for this day. Many of them had worked for the campaign. It’s necessary to understand that American political campaigns draw in far more people than a political campaign in a Westminster system. American politics involves primaries, elections for water board commissioners, party votes, the run-up to the election itself, and not much of it is done by the party hierarchy or professionals. Instead, most of the canvassing is done by loosely affiliated organisations – activist groups such as Democracy For America, local parties such as New York state’s Working Families group – whose engagement with the public is continual.
Most people on the Mall hadn’t worked actively for Obama, but many had and even more had contributed financially – with $20, $50 etc. Though some were there to piggyback on history, this was not an event of pure spectacle; this was something that people were invested in. As citizens in the healthcare system, the education system, as potential trade unionists, this event may change their lives. However imperfect or partial, this was a victory for progress, for their interests, for a justice long denied.
In this respect, it is difficult to understand the opprobrium Obama attracts – not from the right (which is predictable enough), but from sections of the left. For many, Obama is just another in the line of centre-left politicians, infinitely susceptible to blandishments, selling out before the game has even begun. Obama’s connection with the Chicago machine, his centrist foreign and economic policies, his vocal support of Israel – all succeed to damn him in the eyes of those who hunger for… what? For Ralph Nader? For a candidate cutting against the American grain so hard that victory is impossible? For noble loss?
For those who were eager to condemn Obama for his centrism, it is worth at least considering the possibility that, in terms of what is possible, he is smarter than you. The Kenyan-Hawaiian-Kansan kid, raised in Indonesia, mentored by Hawaii’s leading communist intellectual, working his way through the identity politics of California in the 1980s, doing some hard yards in community organising, becoming part of the political system, may actually have thought about these issues, about what is possible, more deeply than you. It is worth considering that his politics is not a series of concessions, but a consideration of what is possible and real. Not everyone takes the path of institutional power, but those who do, especially in the US context, make some very hard choices.
My own take on Obama focuses on what one biographer noted – that following his two years as a fashionable leftist radical at Occidental College California, after his transfer to Columbia, New York, he spent a year in his apartment, reading: Nietzsche, Marx, the King James bible and much more. It is worth considering that this is someone who is self-made to a degree – someone with a complex, given identity who has carved out a path of self-determination, that has given him a critical perspective on the given political situation.
Obama has already alienated some sections of the US liberal-left with his choice of Rick Warren, the California evangelist, to give the invocation at the inauguration. The protests showed how little people understood Obama, or indeed the US. Warren, author of the Christian self-help book The Purpose Driven Life (30 million copies sold), is anti-gay marriage and abortion, but he is also opposed to creationism (which he thinks of as ‘ludicrous’), Rapture, right-wing foreign policy etc. He’s a figure that many of the 25 per cent of US adults who voted against Obama would identify with, as a representative of their values and deepest instincts. Politically, too, the choise of Warren is wise, splitting the evangelical subculture in half. And finally it serves to get the cultural left yelling at Obama – a sure recipe for gaining support from the mainstream. Across the red states, people are saying ‘well if the gays are yelling at him, he can’t be all bad’.
Indeed, that is one of the core strategies Obama and his team have pursued – the creation of a permanent Democratic majority by anchoring themselves permanently in the American cultural heartland. They are well on the way to achieving this. Thirty years ago, Jimmy Carter didn’t take a state on the west coast. Today, it is hard to imagine a Republican candidate taking California, New York or New England. But every Republican state, save for a few small southern and Great Plains states, is up for grabs. Apart from Texas – which the Democrats expect to be competitive in eight years – the Republicans have no major base. The Obama strategy is aimed at cementing the Democrats in power for 16 years, or even longer.
That may or may not be a good thing for American life and politics, but no one should doubt its real possibility, or the intent of the Chicago-based team assembled around Obama. Throughout the campaign, the right were blindsided by their assumption that the Obama team was either the Clintons or the Carter team – unprofessional ideologues, dominated by the politics and morals of the Sixties. Obama’s combination of radical appeal and centrist policies threw them completely, and still does.
Indeed, what is most encouraging about Obama is not what his administration might do, but simply what it makes possible. Anyone interested in real change doesn’t look for it in the President of the United States – the very prerequisites of the job preclude it. What one hopes for is that such power can be used to change the conditions in which debates and politics occur. Some of this is in areas that may be considered marginal – the abolition of the Bush regime’s refusal to fund birth-control programmes that do not focus exclusively on abstinence-based measures, for example. This ludicrous policy – part pandering to the Christian right, part enactment of George W Bush’s own journey out of alcoholism, part automatic condescension to the developing world – caused extensive unnecessary suffering, but more importantly it set the terms of the debate around foreign aid as a basic struggle between secularism and puritan Christianity. With this removed – one of Obama’s first announcements – the debate around the character of aid immediately shifts to a more advanced level. Given the character of the previous regime, simple rationality in social policy marks an enormous advance.
Though many of Obama’s critics say his supporters are naive, it is they who place their hopes in unreal possibilities – the idea that a US president may emerge who can do all the work, top-down. Those who formed his base, who did the hard work, had more modest aims. They want healthcare that is not a punitive swindle, they want the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which will make the unionisation of service-industry workplaces possible. They want college to be a possibility for the poor, they want a better deal for veterans. They understood the modesty of what they were fighting for, the concrete achievements possible, through the time spent campaigning, the hours leafleting, signing people up at shopping malls and so on. Many of them are in town for the parties.
Has Barack Obama taken on a messianic air? Undoubtedly. Everything from his oracular presence to his life history and his physicality commands a charismatic fascination that is hard not to be caught up in. Might he be a disastrous president? Quite possibly he could be another Carter, the difficult juggling of vision, realpolitik and ethics quite beyond him. But for now, it seems worthwhile to assume that this is an administration focused on the need to ‘change America’ – as Obama has proclaimed to people at each of the gala balls he has attended; it seems worthwhile to take a political wager on this momentous event, and to act accordingly.
History happens neither in the manner nor the moment of our choosing. We assert our freedom by recognising its occurrence, freeing ourselves from earlier conceptions and limits. It happened today and to deny it would be to shrink back from changed circumstances into familiar comforts. There is much about Obamamania that is narcissistic, emotive and self-defeating, much of it expressed in the rather sickening co-dependency of celebrities and the Obama campaign. But at its core is a movement of political possibility and imagination.
The party currently engulfing the town – it’s midnight when I write this and in the street, the women in their finery are holding up their hems to avoid the melting snow – is not a diversion, it’s a triumph and it’s well-earned. Tomorrow, something else starts.
Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Election. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)