Election 2008 History Liberalism Obama Politics

Obama is our excuse

[digg-reddit-me]Last week, Charles Hawley, writing for Der Spiegel, declared that “The Social Democrats [of Germany] have no Obama.” This is the second article in Der Spiegel in the past month to reprise this theme.

Around the world, with David Cameron in the United Kingdom gaining strength and Gordon Brown losing it; with Silvio Berlusconi taking power again in Italy; with Nicolas Sarkozy, though struggling today, still the dominant figure in French politics; with Angela Merkel in Germany, Stephen Harper in Canada, Felipe Calderon in Mexico, Lee Myung-bak in South Korea, and Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan – all center-right politicians – taking power in the past four years; and with Russia’s drift towards a 19th century autocracy and China’s successful resistance to liberalization, it seems that the world is drifting rightward. Since September 11 and especially since George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, most of the leading world democracies and many of it’s leading autocracies have reversed progressive trends and generally adopted a center-right course.

But the worldwide left today has one figure it can look to – standing against this tide in one of the most rightward leaning democracies – and succeeding in ways that are redefining American politics: Barack Obama.

That is why when evaluating the state of Italian politics or German politics – liberals bemoan their lack of success, their lack of inspiration by saying: “We have no Obama.”

This seems to be an attitude that Obama himself would reject. In observing the crowds thronging to his speeches, the enthusiasm that has swept him to the nomination, the excitement in the air, the sense of hope and opportunity at long last, Obama observed to Michael Powell of The New York Times:

“I love when I’m shaking hands on a rope line and” – he mimes the motion, hand over hand – “I see the little old white ladies and big burly black guys and Latino girls and all their hands are entwining. They’re feeding on each other as much as on me….It’s like I’m just the excuse.” [My emphasis.]

Although Obama’s campaign has enabled his success, he understands that the success is not his own. It is of this particular moment in history – this American moment – and he understands that he is not the cause of this movement or this moment, but merely the excuse.

Obama himself is just an excuse to allow Americans to find themselves again, to find their way again, to reclaim their nation, to restore our values to our government. ((As an aside, I can’t think of a healthier way for a leader to think of him or herself – as merely the excuse other people use to do better.)) What Obama’s campaign offers and his presidency will offer is not solutions imposed from Washington, but an opportunity for us to engage with our government, to affect our politics, to make America once again a government of the people. Obama is proposing modest steps – as the tinkerer he is – to make the deliberations behind health care public; to create a website that encourages citizens to provide suggestions and feedback about government programs; to encourage transparency in law-making; to create “a web site, a search engine, and other web tools that enable citizens easily to track online federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts with government officials”; to require “his appointees who lead Executive Branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct the significant business of the agency in public” and online; and to make as much government data as universally available as possible.

He’s providing a good excuse, but we still need to do the work.

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