Obama as Anthologist of Uplift
Rock Hill, S.C.
"In the sixties we used to go around saying, ‘Power to the People!’ and now forty years later, here it is–welcome Barack Obama!" This was the white introducer for Obama at a campaign event at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on Wednesday. She had begun her remarks telling us that her first opportunity to vote was in 1968. She was excited, waiting for the day to vote for Bobby Kennedy. "Unfortunately we were robbed of that chance." But now she is excited again, after years of going to the voting booths telling herself "Any way you look at it you lose," doing her duty nonetheless, she finally has a reason to vote, "and isn’t it wonderful?"
In the figure of Obama, the rhetoric around him and written for his delivery, is written the sorry state of politics. It’s not his fault; he is, as he says, a man of his time, and his time is one of simplifications, star attractions, disorganization and pastiche. I don’t mind the star attraction part. Having watched John Kerry, Wesley Clark (whom I seem to remember Bill Clinton calling the only star the Democrats had besides his wife), Howard Dean and John Edwards here in South Carolina in the run-up to the 2004 primary, I can say it is a lot more fun this time around. People snaked around in a long line to see Obama in Rock Hill, a bedroom community for Charlotte, North Carolina, whose only real engine is Winthrop. And Obama is pleasant to look at, charming in a town hall setting, with a pretty smile and graceful hands. If big-party politics has come down to appearances, better a president the very sight of whom doesn’t make you want to throw things at the television set.
I don’t mind the speeches full of invocations either. As a man in Columbia, Anderson Love Jr., said to me the other day, "Let’s not focus on the words; let’s focus on the situation." Politicians always give you a list of plans, telling you all the things they’ll do in intricate detail, his wife, B.J. Graham-Love, added. "When you get on the job, it’s different. I know Hillary says she’s going to be ready on day one, but that’s ridiculous because she doesn’t know what will be happening on day one. Nobody walks in there and makes decisions to change the country on day one, and if they do they’re going to scare me."
But fluid as his speech was at Winthrop and engaged as he was with the questioners–mentioning things I hadn’t heard raised before, like the shame of Abu Ghraib and closing Guantanamo and treating drug addiction as a public health rather than a law enforcement matter — there was something about so many of the phrases that sounded like extracts from speeches past, now stripped down and run through the blender of too many events and the fatigued memories of him and his young white speechwriters:
- There’s a "desperation for something differentnot based on ideology but on practical common sense." (Dukakis)
– What I’m offering is "not spin but straight talk." (Truman)
– "Change comes not from the top down but the bottom up." (Saul Alinsky)
– I will "challenge the special interests." (Reagan)
– "There is no problem we cannot solve, no destiny we cannot fulfill." (Kennedy, either one)
– "I have seen people of all kinds," black, white, Latino, men, women, straight gay, "you name it" yearning for change. (Jesse Jackson)
– "We will invest in you [money for college], and you will invest back in the United States of America [community service]." (Bill Clinton)
– "I will wake up every single day trying to figure out how to make your life a little better." ("Primary Colors")
And when a questioner asked him to imagine for her "eight years from now, and you’re president, what does the world look like?" his response was rather striking in its timidity:
I want to say: "we’re on the right track rather than the wrong track." You know the country is like an ocean liner; if you change course just a little bit you’ll avoid the icebergs. I want to say "there will be a comprehensive health care system" there will be a green economy . There’s still going to be rich and there’s still going to be poor. Wealthy people will be asked to give back a little bit to help others climb the ladder of opportunity. There will still be racial prejudice, but we will have more in common than we do things that divide us. America will have restored its moral standingmilitarily strong, prepared. The average person overseas will be saying, "They’re living up to their values, they’re setting the course, they’re leading." People will look up to America again.
After all the lofty talk of dreams and visions, change and new chances, here he was saying, Basically guys, there’s not a hell of a lot I can do. I’m running for president, and you don’t do that if you’re not a footsoldier for capitalism with at least the potential to commit mass murder. You don’t do that (and be taken seriously) if you don’t say America is basically a good and decent country that just got off course. So gradualism is about the best I can offer.
It was weirdly honest. And suddenly the community organizer in him was hovering, the Alinskyite looking first at getting everyone together to fix the pothole and then the streetlight, and avoiding any talk on discordant wedge issues like racism, believing in American democracy and basic goodness, the power of the people to correct the wrongs, elect the right people, match their activism with political power–not overthrowing the system, certainly, not even fundamentally shifting it, just making it a little better, avoiding those icebergs today, tomorrow, in this place, for you.
The day before Hillary Clinton issued one of her many "remarks," this one calling on President Bush to deal immediately with the "global economic crisis." It was all business, in the tones of assured command, recommending that Bush call together his Working Group on Financial Markets. "That’s something that he can ask his Secretary of the Treasury to do." Thank you, Ms. Clinton. Go to the head of the class. The rest of it was all about coordinating "with the regulators here and obviously with regulators and central banks around the world." On Thursday she’s planning what’s billed as a major policy address on her answer to the financial crisis, and her husband is parroting this same major policy address in his stumps for her. She’s bringing all the heavies down to South Carolina now: Charlie Rangel and Sheila Jackson Lee, David Dinkins and every city councilman, congress person, local and state legislature the Clinton machine has needled and wheedled in. The message was clear: she knows her stuff (even if any seventh grader who has studied elementary government organization could probably come up with the idea of consulting the Treasury Secretary); this is what comes with experience. So do the bows and scrapes of other electeds. Take that, young pup!
There never is much point in the left getting too balled up in whether x or y candidate is "speaking for us." Except in her treacly television ads running down here about giving voice to the voiceless, Clinton makes it plain that the people are mere appendages of the voting levers. Obama takes a different line, but the worst thing about Obamarama is the assumption, as his introducer expressed, that "the everyday, ordinary people will have an advocate" if he is the candidate, the president; that here comes salvation because, as his wife says, "he is the one." His limited imaginings of the country eight years hence with him at the helm is a kind of tonic in this respect. And his Alinskyite background does suggest the only intriguing sliver of possibility.
The one thing Alinskyite organizers really know is how to elect Democrats, and the one thing the best of them practice is punishing those elected Democrats who don’t do what their supporters demand of them. Obama isn’t running for organizer, he’s running for leader, and in the Alinskyite worldview the leader is just the facecard for the organizer and "the people." The politician, in this formula, has to know that one wrong move on an issue of import to his supporters, and his feet will be held close to the fire. As Lenni Brenner (no Alinskyite he) has put it in another way, "The central rule of politics: if I don’t give the suckers what they want, what can they do to hurt me?" The problem now isn’t whether Obama can be president or what kind he’d be, where he’s false and where he’s true. The problem now is, Who has got it together to hold his or anyone’s feet to the fire? And what’s likely to spur engagement, sturdy advocacy and resistance? We’ve had twenty-eight years of experimentation that the most awful, conniving, cynical person in a presidential race will resurrect vibrant, effective left opposition. Where so much else is an unknown, that idea, at least, seems spent.
JoANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org