Call me a flip-flopper, but it occurs to me that I’ve come a very long way on Barack Obama. At first, I was deeply suspicious of the wisdom of his candidacy. Then I was undecided. Finally, I became a supporter.
But “finally becoming a supporter” actually wasn’t the “final” step of my transformation: I’ve also gradually become convinced that Obama isn’t just the best available candidate. He’s something more.
I don’t believe in fate. I’m really more of a dumb luck man. In fact, about the only good thing I can say about George W. Bush is that his life’s “successes” provide incontrovertible proof of the transcendent power of dumb luck (and cronyism).
Or is there still someone left in the greater Milky Way galaxy prepared to claim that Bush’s rise was a product of a meritocracy?
Still, looking back, I find it hard to shake the sense that there was something, if not inevitable, at least necessary, about Barack Obama’s success. It has to do, I suppose, with this country’s desperate need for a new generation of progressive activism. And it’s also about the inspiration that may help to bring that into being.
Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has doubtlessly inspired many young women, but her generally huge lead among white women is significantly lower within the young college-educated demographic (the demographic that tends to produce most political leaders). And all of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s impressive talents notwithstanding, at the end of the day they remain DLC poll-driven pragmatists — hardly the folks likely to inspire a new wave of public-spirited political activism. That just isn’t what they’re about.
In retrospect, I wonder if even my own personal political heartthrob, Al Gore, could have pulled it off. Without a doubt, he has all the makings of a great president (as does Hillary), but it’s hard to see him generating anything close to the kind of excitement Obama has among the young.
Progressive change is hard stuff. It can mean working your ass off — or at least paying a few bucks more in taxes — in furtherance of the public interest, instead of one’s personal concerns.
There’s no question, at least in my mind, that Americans possess the necessary generosity of spirit; we’ve seen it at work in years past and it remains on display in many ways today. But to take this undeniable touch of human nobility and turn it into concerted action requires something more — it takes the spark of inspiration.
To be sure, this spark hasn’t always come packed with Obama’s charisma. Adlai Stevenson, urbane and witty, was badly beaten twice by Dwight Eisenhower. But Stevenson left behind a powerful political legacy — one a far more politically successful Bill Clinton could only dream of — bringing a new generation of smart young liberals into public service. Many of the top people in John Kennedy’s administration were originally attracted to political life by Stevenson.
Inspirational himself, and charismatic in a way Stevenson never was, Kennedy, in turn, attracted another generation of liberals to public service, including a young man from Hope, Arkansas, named Bill Clinton.
The Democratic Party has been blessed with an abundance of good candidates this cycle, most or all of whom would probably have won in November and served the nation well in office. The tragedy, however, is that winning this one election probably won’t be enough to do what needs to be done after the last seven plus years of misrule. Putting America right — rebuilding a fair middle class society, addressing potentially catastrophic environmental issues, improving America’s dismal reputation in the world and so much more — will take more than one good president. It will take a committed generation.
And if we’re serious about trying to create this kind of new progressive majority, inspiration will be one of the essential elements. And for today’s youth, much of that inspiration is coming in the person of Barack Obama.
Maybe, when all’s said and done, even given his undeniable imperfections, it had to be Obama.
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