A few tart words on Barack Obama

Mr Obama has created or been created by a moment in history. 

It is a mixed blessing, this triumph. Whilst it is good that the US has overcome years of racism to produce a black president, it is less obviously good that a man has been elected president because he is black. No way out of that conundrum, probably, but it sours things a little.

And here’s another “problem”. The triumph of Barack Obama implies that he has become president in some way by fighting back against the disadvantage of being black. But he hasn’t. He has become president because at this moment – this single, unique moment – being black was a huge advantage.

In a good way, this Obama moment can’t ever be repeated. 

What’s more, whilst Obama could get elected as a black man, he can’t govern as one. 

That doesn’t mean that he is or will be no use. He is cool and calm, at least under election campaign fire. He has a certain dignity. He is said to be very intelligent.

But we should be quite careful in assessing him. We know already that he has not yet shown us anything truly breathtaking. He is not a particularly wonderful speech-maker. He seems to have unexceptional and possibly quite bad policy ideas. We do not know if he will be good at building political coalitions.

In short, we know next to nothing about him.

We do know a dangerous enthusiasm has been created around him. There is nothing immediately wrong about mass rallies for a politician. They may seem refreshing in a period which is said to be characterised by political apathy. (Actually, that is only patchily true.) But what we saw of Obama’s rallies reminded me of Martin Luther King, and not merely in Obama’s use of a Baptist style of speech. More importantly, the rallies seemed horribly simplistic. They reduced politics to a cross between a revivalist meeting and a pop concert. That sort of rally is splendid and even necessary in a single-issue campaigns such as Martin Luther King’s, or Make Poverty History. But politics isn’t – or shouldn’t be – like that. 

So Obama has set himself up to fail in several different ways. It is not merely that expectations are now so high that the likeliest result is a series of disappointments. More than that, the expectations he has allowed to develop are not really political at all. 

All politicians deploy the idea of change, and of historic moments. But Obama has induced in masses of people a suspension of their usual scepticism about such guff. (Tony Blair’s Messiah Politics produced the same defect.) Under Obama, under anyone, bust will follow boom, the price of oil will be erratic, wars will kill people and have peculiar results. 

It is possible that America will undergo a sea change, and Obama may play a distinguished role in it. The Republicans’ ability to persuade the middle classes to forego a larger share in the national wealth may at last run thin. Health and other welfare may be arranged more equitably. Capitalism may return to vigour within a clever regulatory framework.  

But if he does do these things, it will be only fair to remember that Hillary Clinton and John McCain might also have moved affairs in the same direction.  In other words, our best hope for Obama ought to be that he can be a very good President. We shouldn’t really want him to be the kind of national leader, healer, all-purpose redeemer that he is imagined to be.

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Publication date

09 November 2008