Politics & Media
Nov 06, 2008, 04:56AM

Obama the Figurehead

His election was a massive civil rights victory, but it merely foreshadows the moment when younger progressives will finally take ownership of the country’s politics.

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Photo by aka Kath.

The city of Baltimore was alight Tuesday night, and for good reason. Percentage-wise more people there watched the debates than most of the country. A record 85 percent of registered voters turned out on Election Day. Sixty-four percent of the national electorate—the most in generations—came out to vote on Election Day. When MSNBC called the election for Obama there were instantaneous rounds of fireworks, barrages of car horns screaming and chanting and cops and lights.

Out on St. Paul St. in Charles Village—the heart of the Johns Hopkins University neighborhood—the crowds were surging onto streets, blocking sidewalks and roaring every time a car honked. At least 20 uniformed officers were out on a two-block stretch of St. Paul by 1:45 a.m. They were watchful but otherwise unperturbed by the commotion. By two, as the bars were preparing to eject their lathered mobs, they were telling everyone to go home. Before I could discern anything resembling a provocation, I witnessed a young man get tazered on the stoop of an apartment building, as well as at least 10 other people cuffed and thrown in a police wagon.

It turns out several professors and students were arrested, with no charges ultimately brought against them. A freelance journalist was cuffed with them when he started snapping cell phone pictures. There seems to be little reason to suspect anyone needed to be arrested. Perhaps a few in that crowd were drunk, and subsequently felt compelled to speak and act their mind in such a way as to earn (sort of) a knee in the back.

In the presidential election of 2004, young liberals and progressives—speaking for my 20-year-old self at the time and those around me—were voting against Bush, not for Sen. John Kerry. The opposition was clear, but our hearts were not in the Democratic Party candidate's campaign in terms of principle and ideology. That reality was thrown into relief with Barack Obama’s campaign. Though Sen. John McCain, by now a highly recognizable figure in national politics, was not an incumbent president—something Obama was able to imply by virtue of his voting record—Obama was more than a name, a buzzword, a meme. But he didn’t start out that way.

Obama drew a lot of heat in the primaries for being vague on issues. That is as much a political calculation on Obama's part as it is a testament to Sen. Hillary Clinton's breadth of public policy know-how (most candidates looked short on policy next to her). But by the general election, the policy lines of division were clarified to an exhausting extent. Iraq, taxes, health care, technology—these issues, while articulated by my generation's greatest politician, were nonetheless the overall Democratic Party standard. They were generally the same lines Kerry stood his ground on.

Yet when Obama raised that standard, he did it wholly on his own terms. A source in an Obama swing-state campaign put it bluntly: in terms of dealing with local officials and politicians, the line was always, "our way or the highway." The Obama campaign stepped on toes, soaked up volunteers and eschewed anyone and everyone who might pose a problem. When Obama proudly outlined his respect for Ronald Reagan in the primary, the Clinton campaigned pounced. But that type of nuance laid the foundation for believing in the man as well as his vision.

The Obama campaign wasn't out to ingratiate itself into the fabric of conventional party politics. Obama's ground game, similar in approach to Bush's evangelical juggernaut in 2004, was a bastion of community organizers and volunteers who grew up around the turf they canvassed—politics from the ground up. When Obama passed up on public campaign money the hard left moaned and pundits scratched their chins and within a month everyone was agog at his donor demographics and the size of his war chest (in the final 48 hours the man burned through cash, throwing up TV spots in Arizona and South Dakota). All of this is even more astonishing when one remembers that the Clintons were one of the most feared and respected political machines in contemporary politics.

This time the young progressives and liberals in this country had a name to rally around—a name with an eyes-in-the-sky message and an eyes-on-the-prize game plan. During the primaries there was hope inherent in the prospect of an African-American major-party candidate, followed in the general election by a brimming fervor to elect an African-American to the office of president. The stereotypical foot soldiers of my generation are called the millennials: the post-boomers, gen-X/Y/Zers, yuppies and hipsters—basically the width and breadth of the under-35 white population making over $30,000/year or still living off our parents.

Obama was vindicated by America, first in the Iowa primary and then on Nov. 4. That vindication was shared by a youth electorate that, for now, doesn’t hold even a fraction of the political clout it’s capable of, and we took to the streets two nights ago chanting his name as a visceral expression of that vindication.

Blogger Will Wilkerson wrote, on Nov. 5, a few stark words of context:

But this is not, headline writers, Barack Obama’s America. He is not your leader, any more than the mayor of your town is your leader. We are free people. We lead ourselves. He is set to be a high-ranking public administrator. Sure, there is romance in fame. But romance in politics is dangerous, misplaced, and beneath intelligent people. Were we more fully civilized, we would tolerate the yearnings projected on our leaders. Our tribal nature is not so easily escaped, after all. But we would try to escape it. We would discourage and condemn as irresponsible a romantic politics that tells us that if we all come together and want it hard enough, we’ll get it. We would spot the dangerous fallacy in condemning as “cynicism” all serious attempts to critically evaluate the content of political hopes.

Yes, we lead ourselves. Kerry's loss in 2004 was made all the more bitter by the banning of gay marriage in 11 states. Such a blanket of intolerance almost trumped the Iraq War by comparison, and seemed to me a referendum on America's sense of justice. Though it was close till the end, the amendment to ban gay marriage in California, Prop. 8, passed, long after Obama wrapped up his victory speech in Grant Park. It was a bitter pill for progressives to swallow (let's not even talk about Alaska's congressional races), and it was a reminder that no matter who is president, the public faces many significant issues entirely on its own.

The breadth and scope of the far-right Christian agenda in this country is very much alive and with the generous help of Gov. Sarah Palin's blindly ignorant and divisive politics, very angry.

On the deep letdown that was the passage of Prop. 8, Dale Carpenter wrote,

Civil rights movements, we are often and correctly reminded, are not linear projections moving inevitably into the future. They take two steps forward and one step back. Last night, we will be told, was just a “step back” in a long fight. Besides, we are often reminded that the trajectory is in our favor, with attitudes changing very rapidly, especially among younger voters who simply do not understand why anyone would oppose letting gay couples marry.

Obama is our president, but we still lead ourselves. America elected its first African-American president and the world over is wide-eyed with expectancy. But we lead ourselves. If we trust Obama’s platform of hope and change, then that entails actually being the change we have waited for—that entails leading ourselves into a future where we look out for each other.

  • I know it doesn't have much to do with the article as a whole, but it's worth mentioning that the kid who was tazered was a McCain supporter who was simply pushing through the crowd to get home. The officer used the tazer on him while he was trying to explain this. Another student was arrested while trying to get home and explaining to an officer that the police were blocking the path to his house.

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  • Andrew and I were actually -- if not nearly arrested -- at least found ourselves questioned at least 3 times (once quite angrily) as to where we were going. The whole thing got very ugly very fast, without any reason as far as I could tell.

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  • "[A] future where we look out for each other"? Klein, that sounds like socialism! Get out of here, you dirty socialist, before you destroy this great country of ours! Because, as we all have been indoctrinated to understand, anything that is remotely socialist will take us from being a democracy to something resembling a Stalinist regime. But seriously, I agree 100% with your comparison to how we felt about Kerry and how we feel about Obama.

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  • A very hopeful article, but I wonder when a number of the people who worked their tails off for Obama will become disillusioned as the realities of the presidency force him to make compromises that aren't popular with the progressive wing of the party. Picking Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff was a first great decision, and if he continues in this way, it could be an Obama honeymoon might even last till Memorial Day. But I wouldn't bet on it.

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  • I'm just glad that after eight years of anti-intellectualism and irrationality occupying the majority party in our country, we're finally back to being a people of common sense and good ideas and hope for the future. Obama has brought so much hope with his win and I really sincerely pray that it will translate into a phenomenal presidency when he takes office.

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  • Word by word, this article seemed to be intelligent and it seemed to be saying something. In the end, however, it is just a pile of mush. Look, you are buying into the good-old messianic the Revolution will change everything kind of politics. This is nonsense. In the end, Obama is President. You are not. He has power. You don't. He is going to set policies in the real world. All of this drivel about the world is utterly changed and nothing is same is just a good of emotional nonsense. It makes sense to you, because you are young. In the end, Obama is simply a re-branded and more charismatic form of the same-old, same-old liberal politics. If you liked the old liberalism, you like him.

  • Far be it from this anti-intellectual to bring merkitmuffin down to earth, but the Republicans have not been the "majority" party in this country for eight years. I also wish President-elect Obama the best, but his time in office will certainly be more trying that the phenomenal two-year campaign he waged.

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  • You're saying an Obama campaign will be intellectual? How do you know? Obama never released his transcripts form Columbia and Harvard. Why not? My guess is his grades were poor and he can thank Affirmative Action for getting in to these schools. In his books he even spoke about poor grades, screwing around etc. Most everyone else would not have an opportunity like he did given his track record.

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  • Mr. Gibson, thank you for clarifying that Andrew isn't the President Elect. All kidding aside, you're right that younger people have this ideal about what Obama's election means. That's because we haven't grown grizzled and cynical like you. This was the dividing line between Hillary and Barack during the primary: are you someone who thinks that politics will never change and that we need a fighting Democrat who will piss of (and on) Republicans; or are you someone who thinks that that a Democratic President could actually work with Republicans and could grow the politic discourse in this country instead of further entrenching it? Yes; it is idealism of the highest order, but then again, we (the People) are trying to form a more perfect union, not settle on the imperfect one we have today.

  • Good point, Bill. I like the way you think - all conjecture and no facts. It's a gutsy way to go through life. Nevermind, of course, that Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review (the first African American editor, actually), the most prestigious legal journal in the country. He totally just got it because he was black. Same thing with his magna cum laude Juris Doctorate degree: total affirmative action bull shit. Plus, I think we can safely say Sidley & Austin, the billion dollar firm where he was a summer associate, just picked him because of his race. Michelle Obama too, since she was a partner at that firm. But you've cracked the conspiracy, Bill: Barack Obama is just another stupid minority taking advantage of handouts.

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  • All the usual liberal arrogance; "we're smarter, more important. Do what we say or else! It's just another moonbat phase, it will pass. The world will be worse off of course. More poor people will die following the drivel of this culture. Wealth will be destroyed and as it is rebuilt next time the cycle will continue.

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  • I hope, and yes I really hope that Obama starts off right away with an outreach to conservatives. I'd like to see him starting of the programs to reduce unwanted pregnancies and and abortions so that the cause for overturning roe v wade becomes obsolete. I would like to see him start scrapping inefficient programs aggressively and balance the budget. And yes, uphold freedom, democracy and liberty that were on vacation for the last eight years...

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  • Lots of luck with Obama reaching out to conservatives. Sure, there might be a Chuck Hagel in the cabinet, a Republican and social conservative, but he broke with the GOP over the war. Besides, will Obama be willing to take the heat from a super Democratic Congress if he makes such an effort? That'll be a real test.

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  • I'm confused, Timothy: Chuck Hagel broke with the GOP over the war, and that somehow makes him less of a conservative? I didn't realize one of the tenets of conservatism was never acknowledging mistakes.

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  • Andrew: at least the electorate giveth when they taketh away. Homosexuals might not be allowed to exercise their human rights in California, but at least their poultry won't have to suffer the indignity of wing cramps anymore.

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  • investch, that's a pretty understandable assessment. It is only right that you are fearful for the outcome of the country now that Senator Obama has been elected President because that is what the Republican's were basing their campaign on; fear. I am not assuming that you are Republican. I am assuming that you are more concerned with talking points, stump speeches and network news stories, all of which fostered discussion of false rhetoric, fear-mongering and divisiveness among Americans, thus ingraining fear into you, whether it is true or not.

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  • Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, Phil. Hagel broke with the GOP on the war--but so did many conservatives--but also in Bush's second term became more and more of an obstruction to the GOP agenda, so much so that he was asked by the Democrats to switch parties, and didn't even endorse McCain. I'm not saying whether or not Hagel was right or wrong, just that if he were appointed by Obama, it wouldn't be perceived by conservatives as "reaching across the aisle" and thus wouldn't achieve the bipartisan affect Obama wants.


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  • Ok, I see what you mean. That's too bad, though, because I'm sure Hagel considers himself a conservative through and through, and that he saw the current administration as 'conservative' in name only, which is what I would argue.

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  • @ bill, investch: while the author certainly goes overboard on the hyperbole, his point, imho, is that passing of prop 8 in california and florida is PROOF Obama can't be the be all and end all of politics and what not. he's outlined an approach—a mushy, ideal, wide-eyed but god damn necessary approach—to civic life.

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  • cool piece

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  • I think this fellow is pretty much correct. Obama's a very smart guy who started running for reelection on Nov. 5. He's going to disillusion a LOT of liberals (like Clinton, although he'll learn from those mistakes), and some may fall off the love and hope wagon. I hope not, but that's politics, and as Obama proved, today there's no one better at the craft.

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