I don’t normally write about American domestic politics, but I wrote this back in January and needed a place to put it. So, here you go:
We all know the feeling. Whether it’s a new car, a home, a computer or a TV, you agonize over the decision for weeks, weighing all the relevant factors, balancing the costs and benefits and convincing yourself that only the right one will do and that anything else will be a disaster. And then, in a moment of steely determination fueled by soaring anticipation, you make your choice and slap down your credit card (or sign your mortgage) and beam proudly like a new parent.
For a few days, or maybe even a few weeks, the golden relationship with your newest possession goes well. You marvel at the clarity of the plasma screen, pontificate knowingly about the importance of torque or wax lyrical on the virtues of a proper garden. For a while, life is beautiful and all is right in the world.
And then, it happens. You wake up one morning, beset by the sinking realization that things are not automatically and irrevocably better. Somehow, the best decision you’ve ever made, the one you strained and sweated over, the one you just knew was going to make a difference, doesn’t seem to have done much of anything at all. It’s not that you made the wrong decision; it’s simply that it your choice, for all your effort and anticipation, doesn’t seem to matter. Your job is still a never-ending stream of drudgery, your co-workers banal and annoying. The weather is still shit, most of the time, which matter less because you don’t magically have any new vacation days with which to enjoy it. Your spouse is still numbingly shrill or shockingly dull (and truth be told, just a little too fond of dessert). Your kids, don’t even start thinking about the kids……
Sound familiar? Of course it does. We’ve all done it, made one of those important commercial choices which appear to contain within themselves the seeds of happiness, success, contentment, bliss, only to belatedly discover that while, sure, we have a nice, shiny new toy, it’s only the cherry on a dogshit sundae. Everything we were implicitly hoping would be swept away by that one magical decision, all the other troubles which we determinedly pushed out of the frontal lobe, the better to listen to salesman’s pitch, are still with us, clamoring all the more to be dealt with after their temporary exile. Welcome to post-election America, 2008.
I should clarify that I am not opposed to an Obama presidency. I did not vote for John McCain and, although I refuse to countenance much of the rabid criticism of the last eight years, I am also not a fan of much of what George Bush has managed or intended. What I am opposed to is the atmosphere of ill-considered optimism (dare I say, messianic fervor?) that surrounds his elevation to leader of the free world. From London to Cape Town, Mumbai to Madrid, the world appears to believe that Obama’s electoral victory somehow fundamentally alters the nature of American, and by extension world, politics. This, despite however much it might be desired, will not happen.
The Obamamania that has swept the world in the last six months is as much a reaction to disillusionment with the Bush Administration as it is a reflection of Obama’s character or ideals. This is a natural result of a campaign based upon the vacuous notion of Change. Everyone, citizens of the U.S. and the world alike, seem willing, even eager, to imbue Obama with their own hopes and desires. One need only look at the conflicting identities donned interchangeably by the President-elect to see that his path forward will be fraught with difficulty and disappointment. To white Americans, he is post-racial, a President who can finally lay to rest uncomfortable allegations of racism and discrimination and demonstrate the ideal at the heart of the American reality. To black Americans, he is also a harbinger of a new era in U.S. politics. However, he is one who heralds not the end of racial identity in politics, but the long-sought reversal of the traditional racial divisions, providing compensation for decades of underrepresentation and marginalization. Both groups voted for Obama in large numbers because of the color of his skin, but with differing underlying rationales that are mutually incompatible.
To the traditional Democractic base of blue-collar union workers, Obama speaks stirringly about the need to protect American jobs and reinvigorate American industry, all the while maintaining an implicit social contract with the common worker. To the white-collar middle-class, he insists upon economic policies which will return them to a post-meltdown era of prosperity and stability, with access to cheap foreign goods and a competitive educational system. He says nothing about the impossibility of balancing the demands of unions (especially the powerful teachers unions) against the requirements of globalized capital and labor markets.
If recent policy decisions and proposals and the firestorm of criticism and dissent they have produced are any indication, the balancing act that will be required for the next four years may be more than even this president can handle. Better men have been broken by less. Unfortunately, there’s a nearly ironclad no-return policy on politicians, especially presidential ones.