The 2008 presidential campaign turned into quite an ordeal. Even the most tangential observer was apt to get sucked into a vortex of media spin. But despite all the superficial aspects of the nonstop spectacle, the election became genuinely emotional for many people. It represented a huge fork in the national road.
As much as anything else, the election became a referendum on “spreading the wealth.” In the last weeks, John McCain and Sarah Palin kept denouncing the idea that government should reduce the huge economic gaps between the rich and everyone else. The duo’s logic would eliminate any vestige of a graduated income tax.
From the top of the GOP ticket, the battle cry was a recycled attack on the principles of the New Deal. McCain’s oratory peaked as regressive defiance. Two days before the election, he had the message down: “Redistribute the wealth, spread the wealth around—we can’t do that, my friends!”
Initially, I’d been a bit wary of the Obama campaign’s sloganeering about “hope,” but I felt some real resonance for optimism at the convention in late summer. Delegates often seemed to embody a progressive direction for Democrats overall. And when sometimes I would wince at the center-hugging, corporate-oriented rhetoric coming from the podium, I’d tell myself, “Party like it’s 1932.”
Comparisons are sometimes made between Barack Obama of 2008 and John Kennedy of 1960, both of them roundly criticized as young senators too inexperienced for the presidency. But during the last few months, in historic terms, I’ve often seen more parallels between Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Obama and FDR ran as centrists in eras of great economic distress. During the ’08 campaign, as I looked ahead, reasonable hope indicated that grassroots activism for progressive change during an Obama presidency might accomplish great things reminiscent of the New Deal, with its safety-net guarantees and its mammoth commitment to public works programs that created jobs.
Increasingly, John McCain seemed like a kneejerk cartoon as he railed against taxes with simplistic boilerplates from the GOP canon. In contrast, Obama was actually capable of expressing helpful nuances and facilitating national introspection.
While Obama had shown himself to be overly cozy with corporate power and all too willing to call for escalation of warfare in Afghanistan, some kind of humanistic rationality could become thematic and maybe programmatic during his administration—a prospect that was virtually inconceivable in the event of a McCain victory.
And, politics aside, another aspect of Obama’s behavior held out genuine promise for elevating public discourse and government decisions: he was less inclined to insult our intelligence than almost any other “major” presidential candidate in living memory.
This article goes to press on Election Day, so I write these words without knowing who the next president will be. If it’s Obama, we’ll have our hands full to move his administration in a progressive direction. In the unlikely event of a McCain presidency, we’d have our hands full trying to limit the damage. Either way, given the problems of the world and the power of the U.S.A.’s military-industrial-media complex, the challenges will be immense.
As a practical matter, the best-case scenario involves widespread activism in our communities, determined to shape the future by illuminating good reasons and building political muscle to pull President Obama toward policies for civil liberties, peace, environmental protection, labor rights and economic justice. People in the North Bay should help to lead the way.
Norman Solomon, founder and coordinator of North Bay Healthcare Not Warfare, is the author of many books including ‘War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.’ Starting in January, he will teach a course at Sonoma State University on war and the news media, offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.