When Ken Dryden was named MVP after his first Stanley Cup in 1971, at age 23, even before his rookie season, he said he knew that, whatever he did for the rest of his life, he'd already done what he'd be remembered for. The question about Barack Obama is: Does that hold for him, too? It wouldn't be negligible.
He is not just the first black president. He is the first who can't recall where he was when he heard that JFK had been shot - because he was 2! These factoids are linked. He belongs to a demographic - it made his win possible - that doesn't even get the problem with a black, a woman or a gay president. They don't clutch old identifications with race or "the West." They glory in "hybridity" and "mongrelization" - as Barack Obama did when he called himself a "mutt" like the shelter dog he'd prefer for his kids. For another demographic, this shift induces panic. They worry about "shrivelled birth rates" in the United States and its "enervated allies" (Mark Steyn); they mourn the decline of "the last serious Western nation."
No matter, a change has come. It is not a change Barack Obama brings, but one he marks. It already is. "A change is gonna come," sang Sam Cooke in the time of Martin Luther King, more a prayer than a song. That's why Jesse Jackson wept as he stood outside in the crowd on Obama victory night.
This is a politics of emotion and passion - of "bringing the passions back in," as a recent book on politics suggests. It celebrates change, with events such as next Tuesday's inauguration. But there's another kind of change in politics: not marking it but making it. That's what the New Deal of the 1930s did. It's unclear whether Barack Obama will initiate this kind of active change.
During the campaign, he offered few signs of real policy change. On foreign affairs, he said he'd "project" U.S. power, like all presidents. Domestically, he was for the free market and against universal health care. His appointments since the election have been wretchedly conventional, recycling officials not just from the Clinton era but the Bush one, too. Don't worry about change, he assured the worriers, "it comes from me."
On the other hand, there are subtle signs of profound differences. He didn't need to tell that huge audience in Berlin, "We've made our share of mistakes." Especially if he meant it. His speech on race and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was personal and brave. Even his recent silence on Gaza differed from the Bush-Harper knee-jerk support for Israeli bombing. It amounted to not quite falling in line. When he and Hillary Clinton finally spoke, they both expressed concern for "Palestinian and Israeli" civilian casualties. In diplo-speak, order counts and will be noted. The normal order is: Concern for Israel comes first.
So will he make real changes? He probably doesn't know himself, says Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch.org. This, too, is part of the Obama demographic. He reached political maturity just as that old duality, right/left, ceased working as an ideological GPS. The left dissolved and the right strutted a while, then began to vaporize, too, as we've seen. No scripts are currently available.
It made sense that he became a community organizer. It's where you go to feel you can do good, without needing a broader political vision. But it won't help much in enlarged contexts, like the world or the planet. On the other hand, there's his book, the first one, pre-politics. It shows he has a ground-level sense of global realities like no other president: life in Indonesia; raised by a single mother; the ubiquitous roots of violence, rage, humiliation.
Who knows what he'll do? It's a kind of miracle he's there at all. But his book informs us that, beyond his role as symbol, there's someone intriguing at home. The issue is: Will that guy answer the door at the White House?
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