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Obamaism

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"Barack 2008;" Drawing by Elizabeth Peyton; 8 1/2 x 6 inches, pastel pencil on paper.  

Plenty of Americans who didn’t vote for Obama and earnestly worry about what kind of president he’ll be are now, despite themselves, feeling a little gooey about the fact of his election. Even in the maximum heat at the end of this campaign, the point when citizens are most reflexively disinclined to go on record saying anything good about the other side, Gallup found that a fifth of McCain voters it polled confessed to having a favorable opinion of Obama. And I guarantee that number will grow and grow over the next ten weeks, at least through Inauguration Day.

Americans above all like to feel good about themselves and their country. (To his dying day, John McCain can feel good about himself for refusing to use Jeremiah Wright as a campaign bogeyman.) Since the sixties, disagreement over just how good to feel about America has been the flash point of our electoral and cultural politics. Assertive pro-Americanism has tended to have an angry and defensive cast, partly in reaction to the flagellating anger among some people—“God damn America,” screamed Reverend Wright—on the left.

In the exhausted wake of the sixties and Vietnam and Watergate, it was the yearning to feel good again about their country that led Americans to elect Ronald Reagan. And even people who were frightened of Reagan before he was president—and never voted for him—wound up feeling heartened by his good cheer and hopefulness, and quietly happy to shake off some of the national self-doubt.

September 11 plus the Iraq War plus the Bush administration’s various other misadventures plus two burst stock-market bubbles plus the present economic crisis do not (yet) equal the cultural and political discombobulation we endured between 1963 and 1974. But what we’ve just been through is as close to a remake as history usually provides in one lifetime. In this moment of national hangover and trepidation, we are tapped out, beleaguered—and desperate to feel good. In addition to reasserting that the business of America is unfettered business, our election of Reagan amounted to a kind of NASCAR-ized Stuart Smalley affirmation: We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it—USA, USA, USA! But since then, except for winning the Cold War, we’ve actually done rather little to justify our overweening national self-esteem.

What we have just been through is as close to a remake as history usually provides in one lifetime.

So while Obama’s inspiring and reassuring vision and sensibility and persona are just what most of us have been craving, as Reagan’s were at the time, Obama’s election has the additional virtue of being a good deed in itself—that is, last Tuesday, we spectacularly narrowed the distance between American ideals and American reality. We acted true to the original Puritan vision of America “as a City upon a hill,” as opposed to the self-satisfied, we’re-Number-One-no-matter-what revisionism of the last few decades. John Winthrop’s phrase was a warning to do right so as to avoid the world’s disappointment and condemnation, not an eternal dispensation to do anything we wanted because we’re specially blessed.

Now the self-esteem feedback loop is immediate, and with luck it’ll become self-perpetuating. In 1960, when Americans elected the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy (who quoted Winthrop correctly in a speech at the time), that act proved to themselves that they had become more tolerant, and the de facto epiphany that naturally followed was the stupidity—the pointlessness, the irrationality—of holding on to their vestigial fears and suspicions. A decade later, anti-Catholic prejudice was a quaint artifact.

Even before he takes office, there is one large, low-hanging fruit that Obama is harvesting already: The rebranding of America in the rest of the world is under way. Intolerant, ignorant, bellicose cowboy-America is suddenly … not. And thanks to overwhelmingly white America, as Tunku Varadarajan wrote on Forbes.com, “a black man will be the most powerful person on earth” and “the most powerful black man in the history of mankind.” Also? His father was actually African. Foreigners are even more astonished than we are.

But the election happily overturned another set of conventional wisdoms that were not specifically racial: Reason and intelligence made a comeback against the heretofore ascendant forces of the idiocracy. For the moment, America is reality-based once again.

After a campaign in which “intellectuals” became a pejorative, we’ve elected as president a former professor and an extraordinarily fluent, subtle writer. Obama’s preacherly ability to give rousing speeches was never his main appeal for me. Rather, it’s the coherence and complexity of his thinking, and his preternaturally cool, Spock-like bias toward the empirical—that is, his regard for facts, even when they lead to ideologically uncomfortable truths.

This is evident in his books, but even more thrillingly in his public comments as a politician. For instance, in a controversial newspaper interview last winter, he gave the Republicans’ modern superhero his proper due. “Ronald Reagan,” Obama said, “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” It is unfortunate that “articulate” has come to be regarded as a kind of quasi-racist code word when used by a white person (such as Joe Biden last year) to describe a well-spoken black person, because Obama really is supremely articulate—not “for an African-American” but for a politician, for a human being. The guy is incredibly smart, and America elected him—even though he lacks the camouflage of the incredibly smart Bill Clinton’s bubba-ism.


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