Obama and expectation

Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman brings us, with his latest column, an assessment of Senator Barack Obama, considering the Democratic presidential candidate in the context of two other elections, those of 1980 and 1992:

It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton? ….

…. Reagan, for better or worse — I’d say for worse, but that’s another discussion — brought a lot of change. He ran as an unabashed conservative, with a clear ideological agenda. And he had enormous success in getting that agenda implemented. He had his failures, most notably on Social Security, which he tried to dismantle but ended up strengthening. But America at the end of the Reagan years was not the same country it was when he took office.

Bill Clinton also ran as a candidate of change, but it was much less clear what kind of change he was offering. He portrayed himself as someone who transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divide, proposing “a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.” The economic plan he announced during the campaign was something of a hodgepodge: higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for the middle class, public investment in things like high-speed rail, health care reform without specifics.

We all know what happened next. The Clinton administration achieved a number of significant successes, from the revitalization of veterans’ health care and federal emergency management to the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and health insurance for children. But the big picture is summed up by the title of a new book by the historian Sean Wilentz: “The Age of Reagan: A history, 1974-2008.”

While there are also fundamental differences in the context of the circumstances under which the Reagan and Clinton presidencies occurred, Krugman—who during the primary often criticized Obama—is not without a valid point. Having achieved the nomination, Obama has followed a trend disturbing to American liberals, one that suggests a transformation of the candidate into a different kind of political creature. His withdrawal from public financing, while understandable in a political context, is disappointing, to say the least, for liberals hopeful of a president of principles. And his support of the recent FISA “compromise” ranges into the realm of the frustrating.

David Brooks recently addressed Obama’s political approach, reminding that, while so many pin their hopes on “Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now”, they might also be overlooking “Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes”.

The question of change in the Obama run is, specifically, “What kind of change?” Certainly, as Krugman points out, “America at the end of the Reagan years was not the same country it was when he took office”, and while I agree that this change was for the worse, the answer to the question of change in the Obama run is nebulous at best.

Some would argue that, like Reagan, the next president will face a clear and defined enemy: terrorism. To the other, though, what is terrorism, and who are the terrorists? Certainly there is the al Qaeda set; this is obvious enough. But we need not reach back to former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who called schoolteachers terrorists, to see how deeply immersed we are in the cloudy waters where politics mixes with reality. The DC Court of Appeals, for instance, in overturning the enemy combatant status of Huzaifa Parhat, compared the government’s argument to the absurdity of a Lewis Carroll poem. And well, perhaps, they should. Huzaifa Parhat is a Muslim, to be sure—ooh! scary!—but also an ethnic Uighur. The Uighurs are a western-Chinese minority who are anti-communist and, under other circumstances, considered sympathetic to the United States. Indeed, even the National Review and Weekly Standard have published praise of the Uighurs. According to Scott Willett, a lawyer for a Uighur suspect named Adel Adbu al-Hakim, even the Defense Department has determined that these Chinese Muslims aren’t associated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Yet here we are, in 2008, and the executive branch of the U.S. government is trying to classify these people as enemy combatants in order to hold them at Guantanamo.

It would seem foolish, then, to presume that Obama could, like Reagan, simply spend enough money to bankrupt the chosen enemy. Unlike Soviet communists, terrorists are stateless, and much like any criminal organization, they have diverse means of accumulating funds. We are not going to run al Qaeda into the ground in an arms race, or through proxy wars. Quite the reverse, actually: we can spend enough money pursuing ghosts and tilting windmills that our own economic force breaks, and there will still be terrorists.

At home, though, how might Obama transform the economy? With energy costs spiraling out of hand and the costs of basic necessities rising, it might well be enough for the next president to spend the next four years addressing whatever crises knock on our doors. Comprehensive health care reform could, quite easily, be forestalled in favor of transforming our energy infrastructure, putting American farmland back to work, and quell the giant sucking sound of American corporations exporting jobs or fleeing entirely to new climes.

What of political reform? Brooks suggests that Obama, in taking the cash cow over the dignified restraint of public campaign financing, might have “dealt a death blow to the cause of campaign-finance reform”. And while he has probably overstated the impact, it would not be excessive to suggest that Obama has set the cause back some years.

Bill Clinton, to the other, did not create any great fundamental change in the American outlook, but rather sought to fine-tune the system, realign the Reagan years’ appeal to greed and superstition to something more harmonious with the abstract principles of “America” that have fed the nation’s generations to greatness.

But in running with the Reagan economy and trying to make it work for a greater portion of the American people, Clinton contributed to a “moral” bankruptcy far more important than sordid tales of thongs and fellatio. We became comfortable, during the Clinton years, with the patriotic duty of Americans to spend themselves silly, with growing debt as fuel for further economic fortune. Eventually, such systems break, and as the economic debacles of the early second Bush years demonstrated, the consequences of such collapses are painful.

Nonetheless, it seems a better proposition that Obama should choose the fine-tuning route. The challenge, though, will be to avoid the trap that Clinton’s rightward roll fell squarely into. Certainly, some paths Obama might follow will seem dramatic: bury the FISA reform, burn the Patriot Act, pursue new energy production and distribution infrastructure, end farm subsidies, and apply a more subtle and finessed theory about our diplomatic habits. In the end, though, these will not produce any fundamental ideological change like Reagan did. In the first place, it is a lot easier to inject ignorance and superstition into a culture than to exorcise such demons. And, to the other, Obama’s pursuit would be to revive familiar, if largely dormant, principles of liberty and justice, brotherhood, and compassion that brought this nation such prestige.

But look what stays on the back burner. Health care? Education? Prison reform? Even something so fundamentally necessary as general poverty relief is cast into doubt by the spectres raised over the last seven and a half years. If the Bush administration has succeeded at anything, it has laid stumbling blocks of all size and manner along the path to American progress. It seems almost a cynical proposition, since everyday life has no obligation to make any sense whatsoever, but Bush may have accomplished one of the greatest evil coups in American history: If you can’t beat ’em, just make it impossible for ’em to do what they do.

The challenges facing the next president do not make fertile ground for fundamental change. Certainly, in the litany of woes facing Americans we might find the seeds to germinate amid the rot, but therein lies part of the choice. If, as critics claim, a McCain presidency would merely continue Bush policies, such fundamental change might become necessary in order to save the republic, but that route would be an awfully risky gamble played for incredibly high stakes. Obama, in claiming change, begs the question of what kind of change Americans want. But the question of how much change we can, as a nation, handle seems nearly moot. We will celebrate each drop of dignity restored to the political process even though our thirst remains. We will cheer a changing trend in energy costs even though we cannot realistically expect great declines. And we will sleep more comfortably by a smarter approach to terrorism and foreign policy even though threats and confounding obstacles still remain. If we expect in Obama a messiah of the American Dream, we will be sorely disappointed. If we propose the beginnings of a recovery, and significant progress in the rehabilitation of our nation, we can at least greet each new day with hope, and hold our president to a realistic, attainable standard.

This is not surrender. We cannot achieve our every ideal in the next four years. But we would be so much worse off if we somehow forgot them. We can only hide in disillusionment for so long before an inescapable reality presents itself. Let us then accept what we must, change what we can, and keep close to our hearts the wisdom to recognize that even at our idyllic best, there is only so much we can accomplish at once. Our dissatisfaction should compel us to act, not excuse our indolence.

What kind of change do we want? What, realistically, can we expect? If we demand perfection, we will only be disappointed. Our recent history, especially, reminds that we cannot afford that outcome, lest we turn to darkness in search of light.

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