The Moment

Today, the United States of America showed the world—and, more importantly, itself—a glimpse of its promise. History, hope and a sense of unity filled the land. It was difficult, even on the other side of this vast country, not to feel caught up in “The Moment”.

It’s forty years since Richard Nixon and the Republicans began their campaign to divide and conquer this country, feeding off and fueling feelings of envy (the “silent majority”), suspicion and ignorance (the “southern strategy”). The divisions are a long way from healing. Not surprisingly—maybe because they know nothing else now—the G.O.P. remain wedded to the negative.

But one thing that I’ve observed talking to many Americans over the past few months is that there is a desire to come together as a nation. Perhaps that doesn’t extend too far into the more backward, rural areas, but it is palpable in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There is a great deal of hardship and adversity here right now, much more so than most kiwis could comprehend, inured as we are to a benign, helping society. A friend who worked on the L.A. Times as a journalist has had to take on a second job to meet a “budget gap” that arose through illness. She’s seventy. The daily roll call of jobs lost is frightening.

Obama’s speech today was a masterful mix of hard-edged realism and inspiring rhetoric. (Text here) It wasn’t his most eloquent in my view, but it was effective.

Obama began by dwelling at length with the crisis with which the USA finds itself confronted, going further by alluding to “sapping of confidence across our land” and the need to “restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Opponents of his efforts to save the country from economic catastrophe were put on notice in no uncertain terms…

“We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things… …What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

The simple reliance on the market to set things right was rejected…

“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

On international affairs, there is promise of a new, smarter approach, informed by an understanding that bullying is not the only, or even always the best, way to achieve the US’s goals. There’s an understanding of the interconnectedness of the various elements of the intractable “problem” that the Middle East presents, that you cannot have peace without a measure of prosperity for all.

The statement that, in the international arena the USA is “ready to lead once more” was not the only repudiation of Bush 43’s policies. Obama presaged a return to action consistent with US Constitution (and, one hopes, international conventions):

“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Gone was the over-blown rhetoric about bringing US-style democracy to the rest of the world that saturated Bush 43’s speech four years ago.

Obama certainly has his work cut out for him. But with so much goodwill, so much talent, and such determination, he is the one who can meet the challenge. One thing is very clear. The United States has turned a corner. And for that we should be grateful.

Update: over at the Standard, Eddie posts on what Obama means for kiwis.

9 thoughts on “The Moment

  1. I really do wish Obama the best of luck but can’t help thinking that all the sycophantic fawning for him is incredibly similar to “Diana syndrome”.

    I think there are going to be alot of people waking up in a little while wonering how the hell they got so swept up by this emotional tide.

    This may not be a bad thing but these types of events are a good example of how in history some pretty dodgy regimes managed to get the popular vote.

    The crowd mentality is a strong one.

  2. I’m glad to see Bush go, and that there has been a historic moment to show that an African Anerican is president, embodying a positive image for previously marginalised people.

    But one man cannot bare the weight of representation of all African Americans, as well as the need to deal with the real centres of political and economic power in the US.

    My mind wandered a little while watching the speech. It was all rhetoric and little material substance to hang it on. While Obama is renouncing ideology and a turn to pragmatism (what works), this and recent Obama speeches seem profoundly ideological to me: ie the whole return to the US roots and original Abe Lincoln ideals, seem to me to both promise equality and the US dream, while reinforcing imperialist ideals, and US superiority. And while promising a new dialogue with Muslims, he re-iterates western values.

    Naomi Klein, commenting on the speech on Al Jazeera this morning, said Obama renounced the old neoliberal ideology in his speech (or speeches), but she said that other things he says, and does, and his appointments etc indicate he still subscribes to neoliberalism. Klein also said that Obama is a centrist, but has shown he can be influenced by public pressure from people on the left.

    Also on AJ this morning, Robert Fisk saw no real new direction on the Middle East from Obama, and was scathing that Obama made no mention of the Gaza-Israel conflict. Fisk said he’s watched many of the presidential inaugurations over recent decades and doesn’t see a big change with Obama, though said he can’t judge what he means to Americans.

    I’m glad the Bush gang is gone, but don’t have great hopes for anything much different from Obama than what we saw with the Clinton presidency. But, if Obama does make some changes for the better, I’ll be quick to celebrate.

    Good that he mentioned the need for the US to respond to climate change and make some cut backs in their lifestyle.

  3. Jafa: While it is a singular moment in US political history, it may not be a defining one. I fear not only that people’s expectations will not be met. I also fear a blanket betrayal of many of their hopes as well. I say this because, as Carol alluded to, Obama inherits a machine whose course is largely pre-determined.
    Structurally, it is a capitalist state, which means that it must enact policies that satisfy capitalist interests first. In a globalised world in which US capital is put under increased competitive pressure, this could well to more rather than less neo-imperialist ventures. It also means that all job creation and other working-class oriented policies will have to be filtered through the prism of capitalist consent, without which they will not stand a chance of succeeding.

    Super-structurally, Obama will have to move hard center in order to deflect Republican opposition in Congress. The GOP attack machine has already sprung into action because that is what it does best: disloyally work to undermine and discredit its opposition rather than push a constructive policy agenda when in office (the Bush 43 administration is clear proof of that). Since Obama needs GOP congressional support to pass legislation and has only two years before the next round of congressional elections (with all of the House and 1/3 of the Senate seats in play), that requires him to “moderate” his policy discourse to the right. Given the magnitude of the problems confronting him, that means he will have to engage in policy trading–i.e. granting concessions on some policy issues in exchange for pushing through others.

    My belief is that he will allow his foreign policy team to return to the Wilsonian pragmatism of previous Democratic administrations (as per my earlier post), which essentially means overall continuity of US foreign policy with a more multilateral and soft power orientation. Domestically it means giving up plans to drastically overhaul things like the health system and gun laws in exchange for GOP moderation on otherwise “hot button” issues like gay marriage and abortion rights (of course, the reverse might occur–it is still too early to tell how the causal flow will go).

    All of which to say: enjoy the moment, because it will not last.

  4. Obama himself means nothing to me. The fact that Americans voted for him means heaps. It means those Constitution shredding thugs that have been running the US government have been told that they are no longer acceptable to the people. It means Americans have joined the rest of the world and accept that the illegal invasion and on-going occupation of Iraq was wrong. It means that the people do not want their soldiers to be torturing citizens. It means the end of a corporate take over of democracy – the list goes on.

    Whether Obama can transform his rhetoric into meaningful action is another thing. But, whether he does or not, he is still a success because his election has made manifest the wish of the American people for an end to neo-conservativism.

    New Zealand needs to catch up.

  5. Thanks Pablo, I don’t disagree witt much of what you say, and was reminded of my study of the presidency as a post-grad, and Neustadt’s book in particular. However, Obama has a great deal of political capital and a determination to make something of his opportunities…

  6. Hmmmmmm beige Neo-Communist who says the right bland things voted in by racists who say this is a victory over racism……….

    Oh well it should be entertaining to watch

  7. The New Zealand Fox News Herald is a constant source of amusement these days. Since tbis foreign-owned entity shredded local staff and outsourced its sub-editing, there has been a steady stream of typos.

    This morning, it has given three-quarters of a page and two colour photos on what Michelle Obama wore and her impact on fashion – US foreign policy, according to the Herald, merited just the space left behind at the bottom of the page. How indicative of the paper’s priorities and targetting of the lowest common denominator.

    I regret to announce the sad death of the Fourth Estate in Auckland. Rock on the blogsphere!

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  8. JP

    I enjoyed your post, but agree in the main with much of what Pablo said.

    I think many will be disappointed by much of what Obama does.
    This article in The Economist is worth a look:-

    Overall he may find the House and Senate easier to deal with when the Democratic majority is reduced, probably at the mid-term see this post of mine back in November

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