09 November 2008
The Hope for Some Audacity
Here in Berkeley, California everyone is happy about Barack Obama's election. The only time Berkeley experiences more collective joy than what we saw and heard here on election night is after a Cal football victory. People have been positively beaming to one another; sharing hopes and dreams for a country that they despaired had permanently lost its way.
The election seems to be one of those transformative moments in our country's history. As with 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination, we'll start marking events as pre Obama election and post. November 4, 2008, a demarcation point. Of course, the whole thing could go rather badly. History teaches us to take nothing for granted. But I suspect that, at worst, a whole new generation will have come to believe in the possibilities of our political system and have hope. People without hope are defeated. The hopelessness that permeated much of this country has suddenly been replaced by belief. Most of the rest of the world shares our joy. This may or may not be the greatest country in the world but it surely is the most important. The rest of the world understands that and sees that we've taken a turn in the right direction.
It also appears that the current brand of neoconservatism is dead in the water. Young voters came out in force for Democrats. Surely conservatives will raise again like Lazarus, trying to prune government and bolster business. Meanwhile, there is an opportunity to use government for good and all, not for oil and the privileged few. The cynical politics of division can be set aside for a time and the Constitution restored. Hopefully the new form of conservatism will disengage from the religious right and hateful zealots like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. I grew up when the Republicans were the loyal opposition of the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and Everett Dirksen. Even Barry Goldwater was a straight shooter. There was none of the Rovian slash and burn campaigning. Goodness, imagine if someone had suggested tried to Swift Boat..er, PT Boat, John Kennedy.
Obama's victory has inspired me to read the latest biography of another seminal political figure, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This one is a A Traitor to His Class by H.W. Brands. It has been, after all, months since I last read an FDR bio. In the immediate aftermath of Obama's victory I've been struck by the similarities between him and Roosevelt.
Both Obama and FDR come to Washington at times of economic crisis. Both follow an incompetent predecessor at the White House. Like FDR, Obama will be trying to fashion a bi-partisan and diverse cabinet and will be seeking bold government action to meet a crisis. Perhaps the most significant parallel between the two is that they inspire hope among the masses.
Roosevelt knew how to talk to the people, to make them understand, to calm them. Obama can do the same. It's not a joke to say that Bush could hardly talk at all. His mangling of the English language ceased to be cute in short order and betrayed a vacuous mind. Americans deserve, and again will have president with a great intellect. Obama's impressive educational pedigree, like FDR's and JFK's, bespeaks a mind able to deal in nuance and complexity. It's a positive boon to have a president skilled in oratory. But it's not just that FDR could and Obama can inspire with speeches. It's talking clearly and intelligently to people, not down to them. I remember as a little kid the shared excitement in my house when Kennedy would hold a press conference. We marveled at his verbal skills and skillful sparring with reporters yet understood what the deuce he was talking about ( a touch some intellectual Democrats like Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore never had.)
I hope Obama duplicates Roosevelt's and Kennedy's calls for sacrifice. Bush sent Americans off to war and asked nothing of the American people. Not so much as a victory garden. If asked, Americans will serve, sacrifice and give. Indeed the more government can ask of the people the less the government will have to do. Republicans have tended to ask nothing, do everything, run up deficits and continually bemoan "big government."
Reducing government power is usually not done in the interests of the people but at the service of big business. As a famous president once said, our government is of the people by the people and for the people. People derive power from the oversight provided by that government which they comprise and by overseeing that government. Privatizing former government institutions and responsibilities reduces the peoples' power. (If I sound like a damned socialist it's because I am.)
So President-elect Obama, please don't hesitate to ask. Remember that when JFK called for a Peace Corp he had thousands of applicants before the agency was even formed. And remember the thoughtful decisiveness of Roosevelt, the willingness to ruffle the feathers of the high and mighty at the service of the meek.
Yes, like tens of millions of other Americans, I have hope today. It's been awhile. I'm sure this is how many Americans felt after the 1932 election. Now if you'll excuse I think I'll get get to that book I mentioned.