Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Obama

Like many, I partake in the joy of this historic moment. I was happy that my country showed its great capacity for decency - to judge a man by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin - and that my adopted state, Virginia, went a step further in overcoming its racist and segregationist past in helping to elect the nation's first black President. I am happy at the eager engagement in our political process that his candidacy fostered, and was cheered by the spontaneous celebrations that erupted around the country, including in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I revel with my countrymen at this historic election.

But, appropriate joy is tempered by deep misgivings. I am worried, above all, about what human history tells us to be the razor-thin distance between euphoria and disillusionment, between optimism and cynicism, between outlandish hope and shattered dreams. They are not opposites, but near-twins, accompanying each other like eternal symbiotes who crowd out the messy and often unsatisfying limits of reality. Something has changed today, but not as much as many people suppose, whether on the Left or the Right. Young voters especially who have paid less attention to the daily drip-drip-dripping of politics will rapidly lose interest and chalk it up to another charlatan who made promises he couldn't deliver. Taught from a very young age that most gratifications are instant, they are about to discover that the oceans will not subside at a whim and the walls will not come tumbling down with a wish.

The war in Iraq will not end immediately or even soon. The war in Afghanistan will continue to worsen. The financial crisis has now become an economic crisis, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. We are more addicted to oil today than we were yesterday, and will be even more so tomorrow. We will find it difficult to curb our appetites, particularly when during so long a campaign as this neither candidate leveled with America about the immensity of the sacrifice that will be required of us. Our nation is still deeply divided - 52% of the vote with Obama's tailwinds, including a deeply failed incumbent President, a financial meltdown, and a hapless opponent - ought to be as much cause for concern as celebration. It will be interesting to see who becomes Obama's fiercest critic first - the Right or the Left.

President Obama will be buffeted by demands from every quarter, and he will have to show resolve and even the willingness to invite criticism for rebuffing some, even many - a great number from people who have invested their greatest hopes in his capacity to transform the world. He has not shown much of this resolve in the past, and whether he has that capacity will spell the difference between an overstretched, unmanageable and haphazard Presidency and one that could achieve greatness.

To achieve greatness he will have to concentrate on a few central issues that will define his first term - I believe best focused on the too-long delayed necessity of forging an actual energy policy that lessens our thirst for oil and will encourage thoughtful and sometimes challenging changes in behavior; and a new approach to an economic order that goes beyond the tired mantras of free markets vs. regulation, and instead thinks creatively about how public policy can be used to provide some measure of security and reasonable trust in a stable future in an economic order that produces massive quantities of anxiety and instability. I do not believe that many of our fellow Americans seek to become wealthy from our intemperate economy; they seek instead the dignity that ought to come from work well-done and that is properly rewarded. An economy should serve them as well as it has served the Masters of the Universe.

Curbing our appetite for resources and encouraging a more humane economy would probably go some distance toward repairing our reputation overseas. Obama's election alone has fostered enormous goodwill from every quarter of the globe that disapproved of U.S. unilateralism under Bush, but many will be surprised to the extent that Obama will likely continue basic features of U.S. foreign policy. If America's government will not be run by the likes of Ayers and Jeremiah Wright (as is feared on the Right), neither will it be run by cues from the European Union, as may be hoped by some on the Left. Obama has signaled his intention to maintain U.S. status as a superpower, to act aggressively to combat cross-border terrorism in Pakistan, and to continue the bipartisan support for Israel, among other mainstays of U.S. policy, suggesting that the bloom could come off the bud with some alacrity when the fondest wishes of a cosmopolitan flourishing does not come to pass. Still, over the long term, if Obama can usher in a period of less gluttonous consumption and a reduction in American cowboy capitalism and unfettered "globalization," that alone will have the beneficial effect of deflating some of the most basic grounds for international animosity toward the U.S., and begin to decrease our need for a far-flung empire that has been built with equal eagerness by Democrat and Republican alike for over 50 years.

These suggested emphases would defuse some of the inevitable conservative animus toward Obama - but only some. His positions on life issues will rightly trouble many, and this will be one area - as it was with the Republicans - where he can relatively costlessly and symbolically throw a bone to his Left base through Court appointments. Still, if he can persuade a sizable portion of the citizenry that an energy policy is essential as a matter of patriotism and national security - drawing environmentalists and "country firsters" alike - and if he can honestly redress some of the causes of "bitterness" in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio to which he owes his election without condescending to them or seeking to make them into blue state cosmopolitans (pace his back-channel promise to Canada that he wasn't serious about revisiting terms of various free trade agreements), then he will not need to heed those most extreme "conservative" voices and allow them to spend a time wandering in the wilderness in search of electoral manna. Instead he will have succeeded in forging a new coalition that overcomes some of our most severe Red/Blue distinctions of the nation and charts a new future in which the best aspects of liberalism - generosity, fairness, and a decent respect for fellow humans - and the best aspects of conservatism - conservation, a concern for stable and somewhat self-sufficient communities and a firm basis for good families - might be wed in a new and powerful combination. Perhaps such a combination will also allow a flourishing of a culture in which Supreme Court appointments lessen in importance as our self-understanding as autonomous agents diminishes and our sense of generational obligation increases. This is a tall order, and I am not optimistic that he will succeed even if he chooses this unlikely path, but if he listens to what may be the better angels of his nature and avoids the temptations of adulation and flattery, then he may yet succeed. On this day, if few others, even one as pessimistic as me can harbor the audacity of hope.


Pilgrim said...

Much depends on whom he surrounds himself with, and whom he listens to.

brierrabbit said...

I hope too that he can do all that. I worry as much about how the noisier parts of the Republican Party are going to act now. I was driving home tonight from work, and happened to catch a little of Mark Levins show. It wasn't comforting. The basic gist of his rant I got was, to paraphrase him, was "we will fight Obama on the beaches, We will fight him on the shore, we will fight those Leftist Socialists, and we will never ever give up!", or something like that. Not a promising start. I really hope Obama succeeds, because we, as a society, really need to see something work well for our whole society. To see that we CAN accomplish something important. Like new more efficient energy policies. We need less genuflecting at the Idol of Commerce, in the cold marble halls of capitalism, and more reflection and wisdom in the less glamorous, but warmer Chapel of Community. More of us can afford to meet there.

Conor said...

Professor Deneen,

This is an excellent post. It captures my hopes for the Democratic Party in far more eloquent terms than I have at my disposal. The moment the Democrats make North Midwestern populism and middle-class cultural concerns their own is the moment that they become electorally imposing. As you rightly note, of course, this must largely be about encouraging responsibility and sacrifice, particularly in terms of energy policy, but elsewhere as well. While Senator Obama's positions on biodiesel and a few other energy-solution pipe dreams imply less cause for optimism, he appears both to have the reflective nature suited to effective political problem-solving as well as a solid grasp of the urgency of our current situation. One can only hope that his prudence and wisdom are equal to the task ahead.

Unknown said...

I'm surprised at the positive tone, since Obama represents nothing if not the cosmopolitan, globalist meritocratic elite that caused the financial crisis and has been hell-bent on destroying the few authentic communities left in America.

Anonymous said...

On the matter of Mark Levin, remember this is November. Arbitron ratings month. Added sensationalism. Not to mention his irritating polemic, though while true at its core, has driven likely thousands of folks to the Democratic party by his tone alone.

On the article: Well said, but naive on the foreign policy front, as perhaps unintentionally, it sounds like you’re assuming that President-elect Obama can make it better because it’s driven solely by our over-consumption. This assertion, without at all acknowledging that countries like Russia have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the US, and everything to do with their own desires. Moreover, is Iran developing the bomb because they are afraid of the US or because they want to own the Middle East? Is China buying up all the concrete because they are angry with our oil consumption and don't want us to build roads – Or, is it because they've been engaged in massive building projects of their own?

Unknown said...

I'd like extend my comments a bit. It is possible read my comments in an anti-Semitic way, that was in no way my intent.

Black Sea said...

If I might attempt to summarize your post in two sentences:

The good news: Obama was elected president.

The bad news: He can't change much, and much of what he wishes to change would be better left alone.

I remain pessimistic. (This last sentence is mine, not a summary of yours.)

Patrick Deneen said...

David -
Well, of course I'm asking for Obama to reject the core identity of the most fervent segment of his electorate, and probably his own core identity (what of it can be detected). So, I may have come across more "positive" than I actually am. I thought I should restrain my dour tendencies for one day.

And, Black Sea, there is much that should be changed. I don't think these areas should be "left alone," but am just not confident that he will pursue change in the more difficult direction - though, to be fair and balanced, it's not that Republicans would either. I thought it worthwhile to suggest a few areas of emphasis that would not be so wildly out of keeping with his commitments, but which will almost certainly be badly undertaken if he follows what are likely to be his worst instincts.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Great post, Patrick, and a great discussion here in the comments.


The moment the Democrats make North Midwestern populism and middle-class cultural concerns their own is the moment that they become electorally imposing.

That the combination you mention is a good combination is something I wholly agree with; that's exactly the kind of culturally rooted and vocationally sensitive progressivism we need, not the liberalism of those who have left the bourgeois ways of the American middle-class behind. But whether that combination is "electorally imposing"...well, that's a different matter. It hasn't disappeared as an option, that's true. But unfortunately, there were real demographic reasons for the way the Democratic party changed, and getting that party--or some semblance of it--back will be difficult. (More here, if you're interested.)

The Eastvold Blog said...

I wrote something on my blog in response to roughly the same questions, except my conclusion was a bit more optimistic...