Should we measure a president by his cultural impact, or by his political decisions? Judging by the country’s reaction to Obama, we’ve decided on the former. The Right’s pseudo-populist assault on “Obamanomics,” despite some lone voices of principle, reeks of desperation. The New York Times’ current nonfiction Top Ten bestseller list includes no fewer than four right-wing attacks on Obama, but there’s something second-hand and shoddy about the bile-slinging — as with Reagan, most of the attacks bounce off the president’s smile. The crazy conviction with which the Right attacked Clinton (a conviction made all the crazier by Clinton’s gradual swerve to the right himself) isn’t here. If Obama weren’t trying to steerhead a change in the country’s health care policy even he admits is radical, these books would plummet to earth unread.
The Left, meanwhile, attacks Obama from the left — and the rest of the country meanders somewhere in the middle, still unwilling to feel too cynical toward the man. The magic of the election and the inauguration hasn’t quite lifted — above all, perhaps, of that night when Obama began: “It’s been a long time coming … but change has come to America.” Even those who didn’t recognize the allusion to Sam Cooke’s great 1964 single “A Change is Gonna Come” — a sermon of sorts that seems bolder and louder and more wrenching and joyful every time you hear it, so firm and unyielding that you can’t believe segregation lasted a second longer than its release date — felt the chill and grace of that moment. The much-lampooned word “change” itself, so empty and meaningless in political speeches for years, at last meant what it said. Every syllable hammered a nail into the coffin of the distant evil of the American past, the evil that still made its presence known when anonymous McCain supporters barked out “He’s an Arab!” (“Arab,” here, stood in for a term that no Obama-hater would have dared say in public.)
Already that moment seems strange and far away. Obama has proved himself every bit the “pragmatist” he campaigned as. Already it’s easy to be reminded of the hints — his tacit alliance with Boss Daley, his praise for Truman’s “sensible” foreign policy. We never should have expected Obama to be Russ Feingold — if we did, we allowed ourselves to be taken over by the wondrousness of the moment. I did that myself. The Obama who confessed that Malcolm X’s autobiography spoke more deeply to him than any other book and the Obama who complained about the “smallness of our politics” are the same person as the man who looks to each side during his speeches and then, slyly, indicates that he isn’t really in the club with either of those crazy extremes, even though he perfectly understands where they’re coming from, because after all, America is… And on, and on, and on, and on.
But if Obama is (probably) a deeply safe sort of politician, the response to him isn’t safe or predictable at all. He’s sent surges of political hope through the populace of a sort that haven’t been felt in a long time — not since the progressive era, perhaps. He’s ended a political regime whose daily message, delivered with cold relentlessness, was that some people didn’t belong in the country. That is not nothing.
Ever since the inauguration, with the painstaking scrutiny and unforgiving relentlessness of Tom Paine (who blasted George Washington himself as a tyrant), Glenn Greenwald has tracked Obama’s political achievements and betrayals with the assumption that none of this matters, that a president (like any politician) should be judged by his deeds alone. Reading him, I sometimes feel my skepticism slumping, something in me rebelling against this assumption. Surely this isn’t all Obama is, I’ll think — surely his good qualities add up to more than a prudent stance on Iran, a couple of good speeches here and there. But how does one measure a gut feeling? Does it have any real-world relevance at all?
Writing in Dissent, Charles Taylor damned Obama’s critics for failing to see the mystic aspect of the president, the side that no political critique could possibly touch:
Just like those rock fans who approach music as if they were English majors, looking for the significance in lyrics, there are disappointed and cynical white pundits who believe Obama, like any other president, should be judged by his decisions alone. … Do Greenwald, Sirota, et al, grasp that those who believe Obama stands for something beyond the sum of his decisions are not all blind Democratic loyalists or starry-eyed disciples? Judging politics by listing each action on a balance sheet to see how it adheres to the catechism, much of the left seems unable to comprehend the visionary aspect of politics. The vision that emerges from their journalism is the clichéd and puny view that politicians are finally members of the establishment representing the same small and powerful set of vested interests.
This is an extremely seductive view — the view that critics are always missing something, some intangible thing that can’t be reached through regular channels, but only through the subjective lens of culture, of sex and race and everything and anything but politics. (Taylor, by the way, is the former movie critic for Salon who declared that anyone who couldn’t see the genius of Brian DePalma’s flop “Mission to Mars” was only parading his ignorance of the cinema.) It’s seductive and it’s dangerous, because it means suspending our disbelief to the point of childishness. If politics means the use of power, then “the visionary aspect of politics” is nothing more than boilerplate, apologist hooey. Rereading this passage, I’m inclined to think it is.
I’d be lying if I said I was sure what Obama would look like three years from now. If he fails to pass health-care reform, the fallout throughout the country — the fury and despondency — would be shattering. If foreign crises come upon him unbidden, that could change the entire game — as it did for so many other presidents before him. So I won’t pretend I have any settled impression of him or an opinion that couldn’t change in a week. For the first time in decades, politics doesn’t seem hopeless — and that is not nothing.