Politics & Policy

Inside Obama

At 3 A.M. the night after Iowa, a tough-minded friend e-mailed me (he didn’t want to wake me at 3, merely to record what was going through his mind after the tumultuous victory). “I must say,” he wrote, “I liked Barack a lot less after his flagrantly ranty speech about how the real evil in America is a) the drug companies and b) the oil companies. That is, the industries that keep us a) alive and b) warm.”

There is a lot of what we used to write off as “reductionism” in that sentence. But there is also that wholesome impulse to search for a more comprehensive reading of Barack Obama.

Everybody knows Obama has gone further than merely to denounce oil and drug profits. What is it, concretely, that he wants?

One needs to disqualify a few of the candidate’s postures, and this applies also to other candidates, of both parties. However demanding the formal requirement, as for the preacher to recall the deceased’s name at the funeral, one must attempt to set aside, or to catnap while they go on, the common rhetorical denominators. Nobody, at this stage, is going to favor aggressive military action. The politicians therefore make it clear that such appropriations as they support for the military are for beefing up our self-defense. Kindly do not muddy this proposition by interjecting that sometimes, self-defense is best done by pre-emptive military initiatives.

So Obama will struggle for peace and a resilient military. On this point, he will disagree only retroactively in the matter of Iraq. So, in understanding Obama, one reaches for concrete policy differences, and here is one that attracts attention: “I simply believe that those of us who have benefited most from this new economy can best afford to shoulder the obligations of ensuring that every American child has a chance for that same success.”

Such words bring cheers, because what we are doing is applauding the singular successes of the speaker. But the cavil here is that they must be understood as singular. There is every reason in the world to declare that one wishes for the entire next generation that they come in speaking with the lucidity of Abraham Lincoln and showing the enterprise of Bill Gates. What is wrong is to stimulate the illusion that such things are possible.

One reason for the spectacular success of Barack Obama is the accumulation of burdens he faced and overcame. His father was black, the family destitute; early life was a struggle in Hawaii and Indonesia.

What does it take to transform that into acceptance by Columbia University? Okay, it seems that affirmative action leaned a heavy shoulder on the admissions-office door. But wait! Obama was then accepted by Harvard Law School and — finally — he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review. There is no reason to suppose that the admissions people, or his colleagues on the Review, said, Whoa! Here’s a guy homely enough personally, and cosmopolitan enough in background, he might become a presidential candidate!

The successes thundered in, a show-stopping oration to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and then election to the U.S. Senate and steady movement (excepting in New Hampshire) toward his eminence today, which is difficult to match.

But to suggest to his listeners that any active intervention by the government would increase the “chance for that same success” for “every American child” is mischievous. To imply that such careers are open to most people, let alone every American child, is to foster frustration, and to stimulate disillusion. In 1948, when Senator Robert Taft announced that he was seeking the GOP presidential nomination, a reporter asked his wife, “Mrs. Taft, do you consider your husband a common man?”

She turned on him and said: “My husband was first in his class at Yale College. Then he went to Harvard Law School, where he graduated first in his class.”

Robert Taft was not to be likened to the common man, and neither is Barack Obama, who can do a great deal urging the younger generation to emulate what he, Obama, did in working to be educated, and mastering the law, and of course expressing gratitude to free American institutions that recognize and encourage advancement. But it is not unimportant to remind the voters of that generation that there is nothing, nothing that the state can do to replicate Obama’s success for a million others.

© 2008 United Press Syndicate

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