It’s been said that a political campaign is run on the poetry of promises, while the task of governing is about the prose of policy. As President-Elect Barack Obama sheds his poetic cloak and has to become a wordsmith of a different sort, there are a myriad of emotions in this post-election/transition time that Americans are certainly feeling. Will Obama be like FDR, Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton? It’s too soon to tell, but one thing is certain: Obama won not because of a political crisis like Watergate, or because a third party candidate split up the vote allowing him to squeak in, but because a clear majority voted for his campaign of hope and change. What many Americans hope for is that Obama will be a transformative leader who is able to steer the ship of state in another direction; a direction that will bring greater prosperity, less cynicism, and more cooperation in the culture at large.
It will be an interesting time for Reagan revolutionaries, too. Many conservatives are big admirers of FDR.
They are impressed by his patrician demeanor during a crisis, his ability to explain governmental action to Americans via his “Fireside Chats” (where he would often start his address with “My Friends”– which should sound familiar to those who listened to John McCain’s speeches), the way he and his administration had the political acumen to reshape the Executive Branch, and, above all, the way his policies won the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans. In Reagan, conservatives thought they had their FDR that would realign the political map so conservatives would hold power, much like New Deal Liberals did. It didn’t quite go the way they envisioned. Now that most Americans have clearly rejected the politics of resentment (and “Joe the Plumber” as its poster boy) in favor of a pragmatic activism, it will be interesting to see if the prose of Obama’s leadership proves to be a strong enough tonic to put the politics of resentment into remission.
There’s a loyal opposition, and then there’s opposition that offers very little except resentment, hate, paranoia, and fear. The noise machine operated by the Right has made a lot of money for those who are stars in its cruel theater, but after a decade plus of running 24/7, the show has finally reached the point of diminishing returns. Sure, there will always be people who seek out the most negative and hateful blowhards to confirm their own resentment, but if Obama’s campaign is any indication, he’s very good at avoiding the chum-soaked waters where the sharks circle ready for a feeding frenzy. The Jeremiah Wright controversy was something that could have easily deep-sixed his campaign, but he was able to turn a politically embarrassing moment into a very personal speech about race in America that not only softened the rage at his (former) spiritual adviser’s remarks about “God damning America,” but created an opportunity for channels of discussion about our multi-ethnic and multicultural heritage. People seem to forget that Obama is bi-racial, and that hybridity is very much what American culture is about — but it’s also a source of insecurity.
We’re at a transition moment in our history; a transition borne out of crisis, but one where our insecurities about money, status, security, power, and the like are not going to be sated by conservative calls to “going back” to a more fragmented, disconnected, and suspicious culture — or at least, not yet. Obama knows the window of opportunity for his agenda is short, but as the presidential bubble forms around him and his day-to-day is taken up with the prose of meeting after meeting, as President he must take great care not to forget his poet’s heart displayed on the campaign.