So what does it augur for the future that the Republicans have come up with some comic book inanity to cast Barack Obama as a socialist? I suspect that it will further amplify the conclusion a few in the media reached in midsummer when they finally woke to the realization that Obama was in fact a conventional, decidedly centrist politician, harboring the timeless characteristics of caution, expediency, ambition, vanity and no little tactical ruthlessness.
Indeed, the late-campaign McCain mudslinging has exacerbated the main consideration an Obama presidency would have confronted anyway: Thwarting any tendency to fashion and implement “change” that might be construed as moving too far leftwards from his carefully crafted neoliberal posture. Not only Republicans would resist such attempts, but the Democrats with House and Senate majorities, as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter learned, are no guarantors of aid to any presidential agenda that could jeopardize them politically. Also, Carter enjoyed a filibuster-proof Senate advantage. Obama supporters, of course, covet similar electoral leverage as a sort of talisman which will usher in the change–juggernaut they’ve been blissfully hearing about for nearly two years.
Under such conditions, Obama will revert to what he has always essentially known would be the outcome, if elected: He will govern like Bill Clinton. In lauding Clinton the other day at a joint campaign appearance, Obama left the implication that perhaps no one should be surprised to find that this could be a possibility. In effect, the “reaching across the aisle” Obama trademark is a fit with the classic Clintonian dialectic: (1) Postulate (2) Retreat (3) Reassert and halve the difference, and assume the resultant laurels. Clinton was, and remains, a master of political illusion, and in Obama we’ve increasingly been detecting a worthy successor.
My initial instinct some three years ago about Barack Obama was immediate and succinct: Endlessly conflicted. That was from the gut, and since I come at Obama with probably a singular prism — I’m a former community organizer, as well, and also trained in the Saul Alinsky methodology — that assessment was borne, symbolically and literally, out of the Alinsky tutelage. Above all, Alinsky taught us how to listen. Which meant that timbre and intonation suggested deeper inclination and motive and that could beget total portraiture, if you were really paying attention. It held true for both the street and the corporate boardroom. And what I heard from Obama was the diction and precision and sensibility of an upper middle-class academic; a writer with a gifted lyrical style; and a distinctly moderate politician with an obvious sense of his own self, how that played out in the world, and the ambition and willingness to package that persona to greater gain. What I detected simultaneously, and what my subsequent reading of his books confirmed, was that the racial component in his life was for all intents and purposes, moot. I didn’t have the slightest doubt about it; this was someone who was indeed post-racial, in attitude, inclination and perspective. What Obama had personally breached was that plateau where race had now far less consequence and implication, and where the crucial element that remained for the nation and Barack Obama to finally address, was class.
Class. We’ve hardly heard the word used these past two years. Even John Edwards never actually used it, that I can recall. And class is the direction, the utterance, in which Obama has not been able to go, until very recently. It’s the source of the pervasive conflict I see in him, and only the onset of the financial crisis in September provided him sufficient cover to finally express any specific populist rhetoric. The crisis spared him from having to test himself again in Appalachia, where Hilary Clinton bested him. Could he finally “close the deal?” It’s useful in this context to regard those contests not as primaries, but rather as a series of local union elections, where respective memberships were offered two questionable candidates that they had absolutely no illusions about. In each case, they chose the person they thought could go up against the employers and get them their contracts. At turns diffident, supercilious, evasive, mendacious, Clinton could be Big Nurse incarnate, and yet it’s never seemed to me that Obama was the antidote to her.
From the start the operatic rhetoric of Obama has been ceaseless with appeals to end divisiveness, with little more than Rodney King-ish “Can’t we all get along?” supplication. Obama offered no methodology, no approach, beyond paeans to the nobility of our “common purpose.” Once you dispense with race relations as the determinate social problem facing the country, as Obama has, any remaining color line dividing us then presumably becomes green — as in money, and you guessed it, as in class. And since mid-September we can reliably locate that dividing line in America in the chasm between those who have capital, and those who are at the mercy of capital.
Since the credit crisis began there’s been general agreement that it’s saved the election for Obama. But his skein of luck began with the caucus primaries, and that impact abides, because he wouldn’t be the nominee had his adoring, youthful legions not packed those caucuses. They’ve truly served Obama well, expressing hardly a discouraging word to the candidate about his taking copious contributions from nuclear, coal and Wall Street interests. And they’ve furnished him, gratis and intact, the TheAfroCelt/WorldBeat/LinkTV/Facebook/Twitter “transformative” narrative and identity which for many months held the media in thrall, and which a Boomer like Obama would not naturally assume.
The Obama cadres may well take him to victory, and yet they’ve demonstrated their considerable power by registering their displeasure with him over the FISA vote and the other supposed issues of high principle he swiftly caved-on this summer. His supporters’ use of the Obama official website to do so must have evoked a tinge of familiarity for Obama. Saul Alinsky had two overarching cardinal rules: (1) Never pick a fight you can’t win (2) Be prepared to work yourself out of a job. The latter can also translate as Obama’s oft-repeated admonition, “It’s not about me, it’s about you.” Indeed, the successful organizer inculcates a sense of self-mastery and an understanding of power to the group, and in the end he himself is disposable. It’s a trenchant metaphor, to be sure, and as an Obama presidency proceeds and his cohorts possibly come to realize he’s not the promised avatar, the most formidable and proven electronic networking tools imaginable can readily be put to other uses.
But it’s Alinsky’s first rule which necessarily dominates. Obama picked the fight. And what were the stakes? Twenty million African Americans who vested in him everything they have, pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, prepared to lose it all, to take the hit one more time. And he knew they’d do it, for all the obvious reasons. The stark fact was, he had never thought it through, never considered all the ramifications. As I watched him stride into the streets and black churches of the South and mimic the cadences of the street corner and the pulpit, intimating that there’d be an eventual payoff as exchange for their votes, I knew that this guy would proffer no special consideration for African Americans, because he’d said as much elsewhere, and moreover had distilled it into a published formal canon. The unforgivable part is that in eschewing race and identity politics he seemed incapable of substituting the one vector, class, which held the possibility of transmuting his change mantra from tediousness to reality. That’s what Jackson and Sharpton did, you can hear Obama thinking. Class-consciousness, Rainbow Coalition stuff, class equals militancy equals black anger. Don’t need any of that. The endless conflict unresolved. And we’ve seen Obama assiduously avoid any invitation to meet with prominent black public policy people or academics.
But, of course, in recent days he’s utilized the protection of the financial meltdown to quite substantively address the concerns of working people. Beyond tomorrow, does he attempt to maintain this pattern, steering the rhetoric into action, or does he ease into the Bill Clinton slipstream? I’d like to think I’m wrong about the Barack Obama I see, that the sharp shards of visible ambition, calculation and cynicism don’t denote just another yuppie on the make, but instead cloak genuine emerging stature. I do know this, we were trained to size–up people by the same man, and so I’ll ask: Have I got it about right, Mr. President?