Before Obama’s 2004 convention speech, I remember reading a story about the black guy from Chicago who was going to run for the Senate. I can’t remember where, or even what the piece said, but I do clearly remember taking notice. He sounded different, and intriguing.
At his convention speech, he first sounded the themes that would resonate four years later. It appeared as if he was also wise. And an exceptional orator. After he won his Senate seat, I heard the story of how he approached Samantha Power, and how she took leave to join his Senate office. Seemed he was a good judge of character.
I then listened to his first book, and his second, both read by him. His voice was oddly soothing, his prose at times beautiful. He was a good writer. And had a vision. By this time it was clear he was going to run for president, and against a Clinton none-the-less. Audacious. What’s more, he was going to be the first serious post-boomer candidate. He was now going to speak to my generation – in their voice, to their issues, using their tools, in their language.
And he did. Not surprisingly, he captured the support of a new political generation. He did this not simply because he was a great orator, but because of what he said. It’s difficult to explain how refreshing it was to listen to his speech on race. To a generation that had grown up in the age of political spin, Clinton and Bush embodied it, the manner in which Obama responded to this moment of political turmoil was more telling than any. He treated the public as adults. He responded with intelligence and emotion, and in a way that quite literally overcame one of the deepest divides in American history – that of race.
This was more than mere words. It reflected his temperament. And it is this above all else that I find remarkable about him. He is calm and deliberative, thoughtful and humble. Traits rarely found in politics.
During his campaign, I began thinking about what this phenomena meant for Canada. Many of the political realities driving Obama’s rise are not analogous, and many of the calls for a Canadian Obama were as demagogic as they were ironic (given that most doing the calling had spent the better part of the past 8 years smugly mocking the US). But one thing is comparable – the fate of the left, and the arc of progressive politics over the past century.
The reality in both America and Canada, is that many aspects of the Left, and the politics which have come to embody it, simply do not resonate with my generation. Obama, more than anything else, was to me the first to give voice to a new emerging political spectrum. One not governed by left versus right, but by a different governing philosophy, free from the confines of ideology and identity politics. With Dave, I wrote an article on this, and we are working on a book.
So all of this makes my reaction to his win all the more odd. The night was emotional, certainly. The weight and responsibility, the fear even, that was clear in his acceptance speech – alone on that long stage – demonstrated the admirable and inspiring marks of his temperament. But the most striking moment for me was after the speech, when he was standing behind the glass wall, looking out at the crowd. He wore the burden that he would from that moment bare. As has been said of Lincoln, Obama perhaps more than anyone since, at that moment, truly knew the melancholy loneliness of the Presidency that awaited him. And like Lincoln, he will likely be a great president. If Lincoln’s challenge was to unite America, Obama’s will surely be to tackle global divisions. A burden if there ever was one.
What I didn’t feel on the night of the election, however, was overjoyed. In fact I was put off by much of the emotion on display. Much of it felt superficial. Like liberals who had righteously mocked Bush, for so long and with such vigor, staking claim to their superiority, much of the election night melodrama felt more in the service of solidifying an identity. But Obama is supposed to move us beyond identity politics. Similarly, those warning of the dangers of inflated expectations, never themselves really understood what people, beyond the fanatics, saw in him.
And so on the day after, I was deflated. Partly I suppose because I was not a part of it. I am not American. I do not believe that America can save the world. I do not believe in American exceptionalism, even if I believe Obama is himself exceptional, and I do. Partly also because it reflected on the relative smallness of the only politics in which I can honestly participate. I will never vote for a great American president. Nor do I think Canadian politics should aspire to Presidential greatness. Some of these are selfish, obviously, but politics always to a degree is. Some of it is a questioning of how to make a impact, and how not to get caught up in the ephemeral sweep of day to day politiquing.
With these thoughts in mind, I haven’t talked very much about the election in a couple of days. I have been reading a lot of commentary though. A couple pieces are of note.
First, I have been re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog posts from the past couple of weeks. In a way, this was the first election where blogs as a journalistic medium have been truly on display. And one of the ways in which they can be so powerful, is that they allow an honest author’s emotion to come through. Voice is able to literally sit on the surface of their writing. There is perhaps no other writer who better demonstrates this than Ta-Nehisi.
Amongst all the spin and the trite political commentary, his writing has been grounding. And re-reading his at times poetic posts, has reminded me what it is about politics that can, at times, be so thoroughly engaging. I would single out a post or two, but I don’t think that does him justice. His blog needs to read, as all good blogs should, like a flowing narrative. This is the very power of the medium.
If you want a wonderful few hours – start about a month ago, and read his posts and watch the videos. It will help differentiate your honest emotions about this election from the guilty superficial ones, the ones reinforcing your identity politics, the ones you convince yourself you should feel, rather than those you truly do.
Second, and I think I can stop on this, is a paragraph by Ezra Klein which I found particularly striking in its clarity. Ezra is a fierce partisan whom one would expect to be rejoicing in a historic win. Instead, he cautions:
My basic emotion is relief. The skill of an Obama administration has yet to be proven. The structure of our government will prove a more able opponent of change than John McCain. But for the first time in years, I have the basic sense that it’s going to be okay. Not great, necessarily. And certainly not perfect. But okay. The country will be led by decent, competent people who fret over the right things and employ the tools of the state for recognizable ends. They may not fully succeed. But then, maybe they will. At the least, they will try. And if they fail in their most ambitious goals, maybe they will simply make things somewhat better. After the constant anxiety and uncertainty of the last eight years, maybe that’s enough.
And if I really think about it, coming out of my bizarre post election mood, that is how I also feel. That things will be good. That the right combination of intentions, skill and temperament are now in place, and that we can begin to have an honest discussion about how to address some real challenges. We can do so out of the confines of rigid ideology and all the bluster that come with it. We can start seeing America for what it really is, rather than the caricature that has emerged. And we can do so recognizing that the world is now very different than the place in which many became stuck in their worldviews, in their certainties, in their divisions. Above all, I suppose, this is a relief.