Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Year Obama

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Year Obama

A year ago today I was speeding through the back highways of New Hampshire with my radio blaring, listening to a constant stream of static occasionally interrupted by dispatches from news bureaus - the bureau varied depending on whichever station was coming in clearest at the moment. I had just finished a one-day job in rural Vermont (rather redundant, I know) and when I left the location in the evening, only a couple states had been declared - I think McCain actually had the lead at that point. As I drove, state after state fell and it became clearer and clearer that the expected Obama victory was coming to arrive. I arrived home shortly after the race had been called, in time for the speeches - one eloquent in defeat, the other soaring in unprecedented victory - and to write, before going to bed, my final thoughts on the election (found in a comment under a recent post on The Dancing Image):
I was thinking about posting a final post on Obama's speech and his promise and his risk, but instead I'll let this comment be my coda to the election.

First, the speech tonight had the power of a great, popular movie. Grandly orchestrated, with sentiment approaching hokum (that soaring music as Obama's multicultural, multigenerational ticket and family gathered onstage) yet genuine emotional depth (the picture of Jesse Jackson, a man who has often been very critical of Obama, openly weeping, was one of the most moving sights I've seen). It even had its stoic, downbeat counterpoint, with a very gracious, very dignified concession by John McCain, whom I've increasingly regarded as a tragic figure. I some ways, we could call the 2 hours between 10:30 and 12:30 the greatest movie of the decade.

As far as I'm concerned, this past decade has seen not just a political deficit, but a cultural one as well. There have been some good, and a handful of great, movies (though admittedly many remain to be seen by me). But where were the masterpieces - the Godfathers or Easy Riders or Citizen Kanes - which told great stories and also connected with the zeitgeist, the cultural milieu? In popular music, did we have any Beatles or Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan? Are they even possible anymore? Cinema, music, literature, art - none really seemed to be able to conjure up that heady brew of transcendence, popularity, and grand vision that was attained in the past. Perhaps we have become too fragmented, or too sheltered and diversified in a vast media cocoon?

Obama offers the promise of transcendent greatness, based in part on something we haven't seen in our politics OR in our culture for years: the possibility of unified deeply-felt shared experience. Whether he will acheive this greatness I do not know. It is admittedly vague and almost intangible, but he has already shown us two immense sources of strength.

We've seen The Great Symbol, the man who has a way with words, who connects with people, who is really the first true presidential candidate, the first public servant, of the 21st century in everything from his framing of issues to the way he marketed his campaign (can you think of another symbol as imaginative as the ubiqutuous [sic] O/sunset rising over a harvest field?). And yes, the first black president. That is huge, absolutely huge, and the most concrete way in which Obama's election was, no matter what we thought we expected, shocking and moving.

He has also shown, quite apart from this idealistic, transcendent appeal, a skill as a shrewd, intelligent, fiercely accomplished politician: The Great Campaigner, or The Great Operator. We've only seen him in this regard as a campaigner, but his performance was astonishing. So he is not only someone who can speak well, but who can get things done, at least in one sphere.

But while we've seen The Great Symbol and The Great Operator, we must await the Great President, which is all that really matters in the end. How will the symbolism of change play out in policy? How will his operative skills apply to internecine warfare and the attempts to bridge party divides and the inevitable downturns in public opinion?

Now, I voted for Obama because I took a rational look at his policies vs. McCain's, his demeanor vs. McCain's, not because of these larger-than-life qualities. But it's these qualities which make me excited about him and his possiblities [sic], even as part of me remains skeptical and pragmatic about his prospects.

As for Obama's potential president greatness, this is where the big mystery lies because no matter what anyone says we really don't have any evidence, except words (and we all know how this can be betrayed or disappointed) as well as conjecture based on his other strengths, how he will operate in this arena.

Maybe then, this was just the trailer - if so, I hope the movie lives up to its promise.
He's not a Great President yet, by any means. But then again, it took him a while to become the Great Campaigner too...

Anyway, I sat down at this computer to write about Obama's troubled "first year" (which I put in quotes because it's only been a little over nine months - an important distinction, I think). However, I find myself going back to that historic moment instead. Is it just nostalgia for lost dreams?

Well, no, actually. Though disappointment and frustration with the president is in the air, I was not expecting a Messiah. I still think he has greatness in him, but it will continue to take some adjustment. The real assessment of his first couple years will not be made until next year - right now, the crucial moments on issues from Afghanistan to health care (despite a number of missteps and a lack of effective leadership) remain on the horizon. It's ridiculous to award him the Nobel Peace Prize, but it seems just as ridiculous to get disappointed this early. At any rate, I've been largely distracted from politics this year (and distracted from other things as well, as anyone who's attempted to follow my intermittent blogging can attest to). I've followed the issues sporadically but not with sufficient rigor to warrant a full-on essay about Obama's first year. Instead I offer up a look at the past, if you're interested (and haven't seen these already) - my political series from last fall, in anticipation of the election (needless to say, many of the issues addressed remain anything but resolved), and my description of Obama's inauguration, which I was able to witness in person.

Godspeed, Mr. President, but gear up. The next few months will be critical.

2 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

Not being an American and never having visited, my views are perhaps less than relevant.

But I am disappointed and pessimistic. Just a few bullet points:

1. The failure to appoint financial supervisors untainted by the recent debacle.

2. The failure to meet the challenges on financial regulation.

3. The failure to provide leadership on climate change.

4. The tolerance of high levels of unemployment and growing inequality.

5. Not having the courage of his convictions on medicare and peace in the Middle East.

7. His acceptance of the political farce in Afghanistan.

8. His failure to engage with Latin America.

9. Allowing the first family to become celebrity fodder.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Tony. Rather quickly, keeping in mind that I have not followed all the news stories and political debates this year as closely as last year and with the proviso that I'm trying to keep it brief as I wasn't even supposed to check up on the blog right now (other fish to fry) but gave in to temptation:

1. Out of curiosity, who do you feel is tainted?

2. My understanding is that you are correct on this, and that he bungled attaching conditions to the further bank bailouts. But again, this understanding is cursory and further investigation by me is warranted.

3. Here I'm going to say that Obama can't provide leadership on every issue at the moment. If he addresses climate change in a meaningful way in his first two or three years in office, I'll be pleased. For the moment, health care, the economy, and Afghanistan are crowding out many other issues. A bullet point which you DIDN'T mention, but which has been bothering me, is Obama's tendency to overreach himself. It's simply impossible for a president to address every issue, even every pressing, important issue in an equally meaningful way. If anything, I think he needs more message discipline, not less.

4. "High levels of unemployment" is a good point. I just read a very brief essay on his first year which mentioned the Obama team's oversight of dealing with employment directly, putting them in the present bind, where they have to convince the American people they are in a "jobless recovery". Good luck. As for "growing inequality" this will take more time. I think it's another case in which we'll have to reserve judgement for several years before condemning Obama for not opening up economic opportunities for those lower on the side.

5. Yes, on the public option. I'm not sure what opportunities he's really had on the Middle East yet (assuming you mean Israel/Palestine) other than to make speeches and engage in some tentative diplomacy.

Where's 6?!

7. Do you mean the Karzai election, and the dropout of his opponent from the runoff? Not sure how I feel about that yet. On the face of it, it seems highly dubious, though it's alleged that the opponent hadn't a chance of winning and hence left the race - which wouldn't necessarily make the whole election illegitimate. Whether that it is merely spin or contains some truth remains to be seen by me.

8. Again, I think there's just too much on his plate already and there hasn't been much time. But as someone with a strong interest in past U.S.-Latin American "relations" (if you can call him that). I very much hope he does engage with this issue over the next four years.

9. Not sure what you mean by this.

Overall, it seems that we agree on some matters but disagree as to what we should have expected from Obama 9 months into his presidency. I think it's too soon to be "disappointed" about what he hasn't addressed, and "pessimistic" about what he will - save for some specific issues like health care in which the ball is essentially in his court. It's hard to tell this early in a presidency what's wheel-spinning and what's building the foundations for future achievements.

I do think we'll have a better idea in several months of how his presidency is going, and an even better idea approaching the midterms in 2010.