The Promise Versus the Proposals of Obama


By Joe Campbell
October 28th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]”I just don’t know him,” people say.

It has become a constant refrain, by now even a cliche – as political pundits declare that Obama has not “closed the deal.” At first, it was decided this was the flip side to Obama’s new-ness. But, after nearly two years on the national radar, countless debates, and a constant media presence, this reason seems less convincing. And contrast this uncertainty about Obama with the certainty about Sarah Palin – who has been a national presence for just two months. Yet many of the same people who still don’t “know” Obama claim to “know” Sarah Palin very well.

Many commentators attribute this to racism – and I’m sure that plays a part for some. But I think the essential uncertainty about Obama has its root in something else – the perceived difference between the promise of Obama and his prosaic proposals.

Few would dispute that Obama’s campaign has been imbued from the start with a sense of promise, a sense of restoration, a sense of hope, of change (you can believe in), of possibility. He invokes with prophetic resonance the essence of the American dream – “not what is seen, but is unseen, that better place around the bend.” In the midst of the financial crisis, he gives a speech in the midst of a powerful storm and calls on us to stop despairing that “the rains will never pass” but to remember that “these too shall pass, and a brighter day will come.” There is a sense that this moment is a turning point in American history, if we will seize it. And there is a hunger for change that is palpable in America.

And yet Obama’s policies seem small, undramatic, safe. They certainly are change – but not enough change to reverse the tides of history. Obama’s policies would not re-order our society; they would not transform America – either our foreign policy or domestic policy. Obama is not some libertarian or liberal or progressive or socialist or neoconservative or fascist or communist ideologue. Rather, he proposes moderate and pragmatic steps to address long-simmering issues – the squeezing of the middle class, climate change, terrorism, a broken politics, an expansive executive branch, our dependence on oil, and now, the financial crisis.

He does not propose a new ideology that will offer us all the answers. He proposes instead to tinker – to preserve the system as it is – while tinkering with the processes where we can; to create positive incentives for behavior we need; to stop policies that exacerbate the problems; to try different things, regardless of what ideology promotes them, and stick with what works.

There is great promise in this approach. Tinkering is – as the prophet of this financial crisis, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, has said – the best we can do in a world we only imperfectly understand. But it seems less dramatic than the promise of Obama that we sense.

It is on this perception that John McCain’s entire campaign is based – as they describe Obama as someone with something to hide, as inauthentic and dishonest; as they claim he is a socialist, a Marxist, a radical. Those who don’t “know” Obama fear him because they sense this contrast between promise and policy. Some fill in this gap with stories of a “secret Muslim” sleeper agent or “terrorist bloodlines”. Others claim he is a secret radical – a Communist or Socialist – who hates America and secretly will raise taxes on everyone once he gets into the White House. Yet others just remain uncertain.

Many commentators warn that Obama supporters will inevitably be disappointed in him once they realize he will not re-make the world.

Yet – this precisely is the promise of Obama. He is not a revolutionary. He is a pragmatist, offering to put  the culture war of the past decades on hold in order to focus on those serious issues that we have been hearing about for just as long, yet doing nothing about. They aren’t fixable overnight – we know that. But the promise of Obama is that he will begin to address them – and that we can start making progress.

The promise of Obama is not that we will create some utopia – but that we will set our country on the right path again. The middle class will not be stabilized by Obama’s economic policies by the end of the first term; terrorism will still be a festering issue; we will still be contributing to global warming – but the hope is, the promise is, we will have started going in the right direction.

For the moment, that’s enough.