Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The president-elect

Barack Obama is the president-elect of the United States of America; the first black man to win the office in history. It was a rout, or at least it looks like one by recent standards: Obama takes 364 electoral votes to McCain’s 174, taking nine of Bush's ‘red’ states (FL, NC, VA, OH, IN, IA, NV, CO, and NM) when Florida or Ohio alone would have sufficed. The electoral map has been redrawn. At the very least it has been revealed, not only to us but also to the world, that the rigidly consistent line between loyal Republican states and loyal Democratic states that held in 2000 and 2004 was probably no more than a tremendous, hard-fought achievement by the Bush campaign—not something more enduring and Kulturkampfy in the political field. No doubt the highest voter turnout since 1908 had something to do with this correction.

After the Democratic victory in the 2006 mid-term election—echoed by last night's blue gains in the Senate and House of Representatives—Mike Davis mustered a pinch of optimism:
"The exhilarating promise of the November victory is that a cadre of veteran liberal Democrats -- Charles Rangel (Ways and Means), Barney Frank (Financial Services), Henry Waxman (Government Reform), David Obey (Appropriations), Ike Skelton (Armed Forces), and John Rockefeller IV (Senate Intelligence Committee) -- will use their hard-won committee chairmanships to mount sweeping inquisitions of the Himalayan corruption and collusion of the DeLay years. With subpoena power finally in the hands of the opposition, the interlocking special interests that dominate the Bush administration will face the comprehensive exposure and accounting that they managed to elude in the aftermath of the Enron scandal."
But Davis was rightfully skeptical:
"In the worst-case scenario, the long-hoped-for New Populism would simply become midwife to a bipartisan regroupment of bigots and cranks, while the Democratic leadership continues to take its cues from Goldman Sachs and Genentech."
Today, there is even more cause for caution.

With only seventy-six days until his inauguration, the president-elect is understandably anxious to start his preparations. The WSJ reports that he will begin high level briefings on Thursday, and many expect key cabinet positions to be announced next week. Obama made nods in his acceptance speech to the difficulties that lie ahead: two wars in the Middle East, a housing and financial crisis that has yet to hit bottom, serious immigration concerns, and a number of potentially catastrophic humanitarian crises on the world's horizon. It has never been clear that Obama is up to these tasks; the coming weeks will offer the first signs of how he will actually proceed, now that the votes have been counted.

For now, feelings are unusually high. Nobody ever accused Obama of being prone to give bad speeches, and, visibly exhausted, he delivered another spectacle last night. The rhetorical armature of the speech was huge, mixing Christian with American, "yes we can" with distinct allusions to the canonical American speeches of the last century and a half: Lincoln, FDR, JFK, RFK, King, and even Reagan. (As with Nixon, once, and Clinton, the kids get a puppy.) It was a sermon; its text the scriptures of American politics. For those who went to Grant Park to hear the speech in person, the religiosity was unmistakeable, the enthusiasm even overbearing.

"We have a righteous wind at our back," Obama announced over the weekend. And the wind did blow in Chicago. It remains to be seen where, if anywhere, it will take us. There were 19th-century crowds in that city. In New York, and Boston, in Philadelphia and Los Angeles too. It is hard to recall a popular expression of so-called 'collective effervescence' like this one -- not in this country, not recently. Maybe Boston after the Red Sox won in 2004, maybe, for a margin, the trek to Burning Man every year—but nothing of this palpable, almost utopian spirit that erupted last night in so many cities, so many different cities. In living memory, in the United States, we have only known that spirit when it emerges, vengeful, to burn its own houses down; or occasionally to mourn.

And for what? For change, we are told, for a new birth of popular politics in America. We’ll see. It doesn't seem like there is, really, any rational ground on which we might be permitted to hope that Obama’s presidency will satisfy the spirit which welcomed him to power last night. Maybe that's the point, the real question: will people remember how elated, how relieved, and how hopeful they were on November 4, 2008, when change was on the rhetorical bill of fare like never before? Will there emerge a discourse, a way of thinking, that can hold this presidency to its own, historic standards, and that can offer a productive outlet for the frustrations that, almost certainly, lie ahead?


a-t said...

"It was a sermon; its text the scriptures of American politics. For those who went to Grant Park to hear the speech in person, the religiosity was unmistakeable, the enthusiasm even overbearing."

well and charmingly put.

Ry. H. said...

“Mindful of the uses that fascists had made of film [ … ] Benjamin sternly rebuked the aestheticization of politics, by which sheer technical brilliance and beauty mask the representations of a pernicious political program.”
— introductory essay for Walter Benjamin's “The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the North Anthology of Theory & Criticism