As I write this, it’s nearly midnight on Tuesday, November 3, 2009, the end of a day during which elections were held in several states around America (including New York, New Jersey and Virginia), largely for governors and mayors and other local officials, an off-year election – not to be confused with mid-term races held half-way through a President’s term and, as a rule, it’s senators and Congressional representatives whose careers are on the line.
In today’s elections, the Democrats won some, the Republicans won some, and the media and press pundits are already blathering about what it all means: was this a referendum on President Obama and is he winning or losing?, what does this posit for 2010 and 2012?, all the political horse race shit that has nothing to do with people’s real lives, and which, for decades, has pushed millions out of the arena of civic and political concern.
But tonight was also the debut of HBO’s new documentary, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, about his historic campaign for the presidency and his election as the first African-American President in 2008. Although, I’m sad to say, it doesn’t tell us anything about him that we don’t already know, it is a well-crafted, important reminder of the sense of energy, faith, optimism, racial dignity, Liberal decency, and immeasurable enthusiasm that accompanied Obama’s campaign and its milestone victory.
With a combination of old-school, beat-the-bushes campaigning and an unprecedentedly sophisticated use of new and established media, Barack Obama succeeded in bringing millions of previously disenchanted, disinterested youth into the political fold, and he gave aging Lefties a sense of we-the-people-déjà vu that we had long ago stopped waiting for.
Of course, the campaign nearly exploded the heads of numerous Republicans, Conservatives, and Vehemently White Americans (you’ll notice I didn’t say racist, because heaven forbid that I or anyone should imply that race was an issue in the campaign and continues to be an issue in Mr. Obama’s presidency…). But Obama’s campaign battle cries: “Change You Can Believe In,” “Yes We Can,” “The Audacity of Hope,” “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For” and, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “The Urgency of Now,” drowned out the Doubting Bubbas, as well as the frightened, the reserved, the complacent. He won. And those of us who supported him believed that he and we would change the world. So how did we go from “hepped up and ready to go” to hemmed in and not doing much?
Before I say any more, I want to state that right up until Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to Obama and gave him her full-throated support, she was my candidate. I didn’t adore her. She didn’t inspire me. I believed she was a true politician (with many of the negative implications that word often carries) who knew how to play with the Big Boys on their turf and give them a run for their money. I believed her balls were as big as theirs, and that her moxie, that “woman element” which set her apart from the pack, added the thrill of another kind of history-making election to what was an essentially pragmatic choice.
I didn’t want to believe in Barack Obama. I had had my political heart broken too many times already. I didn’t want to hope, didn’t want to join The Movement, didn’t want to drink the joy-laced kool aid. I felt I knew what I could expect from Hillary: competent governance, follow-through on a few core issues, a particular dedication to women’s rights, and the frequently-sage private counsel of her husband, the former President.
But it wasn’t to be. Because a huge population of disparate people, many of them leading hard lives, believed they had found a man who could and would change the world – for the radically, differently better. And in the time between the Democratic Convention and Election Day, I found myself caught up in the hope and excitement. Even when the greedy cowards of Wall Street and the financial industry sent the country (and much of the world) tumbling down the economic rabbit hole, I kept faith with Obama.
He was cool. He was commanding. He seemed ready, willing and able to take on awesome problems that hadn’t even been on the table until the last days of the campaign. I thought he was trying to make peace with an intractable enemy and that this was a good thing. I thought he was getting a raw, hateful deal from the opposition. I thought the President was splendid during his first 100 days, and I still had hope. And I thought a lot of his problems were coming from the Democrats, who were (and still are) doing an unfortunately effective imitation of Monty Python’s "Ministry of Silly Walks."
But now it’s a year since the election and just a few months short of that since Obama took office. And while I like some of the things he’s said and done, I’m rocked and shocked by his overall performance and stunned that nobody around him seems to be reminding him that when you’ve got the power you should USE IT!
Former President Lyndon Johnson, who, it turns out, was one of the best, most innovative and truly socially-caring presidents of the 20th century along with FDR, was completely tainted by the Vietnam War, which basically killed Johnson’s Great Society along with hundreds of thousands of people. I fear Afghanistan can do the same thing to Obama – except that what Obama’s ultimate legacy will be is now a mondo question mark, because he’s not behaving like the Nouveau President we were sure he would be.
I know the Right genuinely believe he’s a Socialist, but to those of us who thought he would be a come-out-fighting Liberal, he’s behaving like a Centrist wimp. He’s made a mess of health care reform, allowing Congress to craft a sloppy 1,900-page bill that, among other things, betrays women, and which is not likely to provide the service and security we as a nation were promised. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing about the economy except giving aid and comfort to the enemy (Wall Street and the banks) while millions of ordinary people are losing jobs and homes faster than a middle-aged man shedding hair. He’s talked a good game to the LGBT community, but he hasn’t actually done squat.
Indeed, all of the messes and injustices and expenses that Bush left him have only been exacerbated; he can’t control his own party; and he’s spent immeasurable political capital trying to achieve bipartisanship with people who hate him at the expense of real change and genuine relief for the people who still love and support him, even though we’re deeply distraught, confused and disappointed.
As was said about the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, who was revealed to be a fake, “he’s not a bad man, he’s just a very poor wizard.” Maybe Obama sincerely wanted the change he inspired us to believe in and just doesn’t know how to do it. Maybe he conned us. At this point, we can’t tell. Emotionally, I would prefer incompetence to deception, but only the future will tell.
Mr. President, my advice, my request, my heartfelt plea, is that you stop playing nice and start playing hardball. Use your power, throw your weight around, and force those fractious Dems to get in line. Be a great one-term President rather than a mediocre two-termer. Remember who your friends are. During the campaign, you told us it wasn’t about you, it was about us. Well, now it is about you. So, whataya gonna do about it? And when. Because we really are in the midst of the Urgency of Now.