Dreams of Obama

Transformational president or another disappointment?


M yths are all-important. Fifty years ago, the mythic Barack Obama existed only as an aspiration, an ideal, in a country where interracial love was taboo and interracial marriage was largely banned.

The early Civil Rights movement, the jazz musicians and the Beat poets dreamed up this mythic Obama before the literal Obama could materialize. His African father and white countercultural mother dared to dream and love him into existence, incarnate him, at the creative moment of the historic march on Washington. Only the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation opened space for the dream to rise politically.

If this sounds unscientific or, as some would say, cultish, remember that none of the supposedly expert people in the political, media or intellectual establishments saw this day coming. It was dreamed up and built by experienced dreamers with long histories in community organizing, social movements and not a few lost causes.

In one of his best oratorical moments, Obama summoned the spirit of social movements that were built from the bottom up. As he repeats this mantra of movements thousands of times to millions of Americans, a new cultural understanding becomes possible. This is the foundation of a new American story that is badly needed, one that attributes whatever is great about this country to the ghosts of those who came before, in social movements from the margins.

John McCain represents a different American story. He bombed Vietnam at least 25 times before being shot down in a war that never should have been fought, in a defeat that still cannot say its name. He wants to continue the unwinnable Iraq War, costing $10 billion per month, until every suspect Iraqi is dead, wounded or detained, even though our military tactics keep causing more young Iraqis to hate us than ever before.

As if fighting the war on terrorism until the end of terrorism isn’t enough for him, McCain wants to reignite the Cold War until the Russians are forever broken and humiliated. The vanguard for the anti-Russian offensive has been Georgia, a stronghold of the neoconservative lobby (and, incidentally, a cash cow for McCain’s own foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars working as a lobbyist for the country before joining McCain’s campaign team).

There are many outside the Obama movement who assert that the candidate is “not progressive enough,” that Obama will be co-opted as a new face for American interventionism, that in any event real change cannot be achieved from the top down. These criticisms are correct. But they miss the larger point.

Most of us want President Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq more rapidly than in 16 months. But it is important that Obama’s position is shared by Iraq’s prime minister and the vast majority of both our people. The Iraqi regime, pressured by its own people, has rejected the White House and McCain’s refusal to adopt a timetable.

The real problem with Obama’s position on Iraq is his adherence to the outmoded Baker-Hamilton proposal to leave thousands of American troops behind for training, advising and ill-defined “counterterrorism” operations. Obama should be pressured to reconsider this recipe for a low-visibility counterinsurgency quagmire.

One thing is certain: The man will disappoint as well as inspire.

Then why support him? There are three reasons. First, American progressives, radicals and populists need to be part of the vast Obama coalition, not perceived as negative do-nothings in the minds of the young people and African Americans at the center of the organized campaign. Second, his court appointments will keep us from a right-wing lock on social, economic and civil-liberties issues during our lifetime. Third, it should be no problem to vote for Obama and picket his White House when justified.

Obama himself says he has solid progressive roots but that he intends to campaign and govern from the center. (He has said he is neither a “Scoop” Jackson Democrat nor a Tom Hayden Democrat.) What is missing in the current equation, however, is not a capable and enlightened centrist but a progressive social movement. The creative tension between large social movements and enlightened Machiavellian leaders is the historical model that has produced the most important reforms in the course of American history.

Mainstream political leaders will not move to the left of their own base. There are no shortcuts to radical change without a powerful and effective constituency organized from the bottom up. The next chapter in Obama’s new American story remains to be written, perhaps by the most visionary of his own supporters.

There is the improbable hope that the movement set ablaze by the Obama campaign will be enough to elect Obama and a more progressive Congress in November, creating an explosion of rising expectations for social movements—here and around the world—that President Obama will be compelled to meet in 2009.

That is a moment to live and fight for.

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