Barack Obama’s eloquence in the defense of idealism hasn’t changed since Iowa, but reaction to it has. He is accused of favoring uplifting rhetoric over hard policy choices. Some commentators complain that for them, the thrilling speeches of the primary season now produce little or no reaction. Obama speaks of a renewed world, but most old-timers, cynical or not, expect the world — especially the one inside the Beltway — to roll on without much change. Inertia will prevail over hope. We are fortunate, however, that Obama himself doesn’t believe any of this.
“Rhetoric” is what George Bush offered when he promised compassionate conservatism and insisted that he was a uniter, not a divider. The words were a cover up and a pretense, empty of sincere meaning. All along, one supposes, Bush’s right-wing agenda was firmly in place. Canny advisers knew the agenda wouldn’t sell, so they mounted a distraction that quite handily fooled enough of the voting public to achieve the desired results.
Obama’s words ring of sincerity, but that’s not the key thing: they grow from a much wider basis than one politician’s desire to be elected. It may be true that he resorts to cliches when speaking of a new world and dignity for every person, but the impulse behind them is shared by millions, not just in this country but around the globe. Spontaneous upwelling like this occurs rarely, and it often signifies radical change. The mechanics of mass movements baffle historians. Many kinds of simmering emotions never coalesce into a movement. Eastern Europe changed under Communism for forty-five years to no great effect except mass grumbling and depression, and those uprisings that did occur in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were quelled in a matter of days by brute force.
We aren’t talking about might against might now but something subtler. Obama was right to mention the Berlin Wall multiple times in his visit to that city, because the Wall was not pushed over by force, unless you mean the force of consciousness. Right timing and mass will came together perfectly; resistance and opposition were rendered powerless. Can the same magic strike again? We have immovable walls in the U.S., and no one knows if Obama will be like Woodrow Wilson, whose ideals about peace and international unity were crushed, or like Kennedy, who caught a wave of change stronger than he ever expected (his 1960 campaign, viewed objectively, was full of standard Cold War rhetoric).
Clearly millions of people, the majority of the electorate, want a new start on many fronts. Taken piecemeal, Obama’s chances of reforming Washington, reversing the enormous national debt, updating the tax code, offering universal health care, and establishing a new image abroad seem slim. Idealism, we are told, will come a cropper when it hits its head against solid reality. But that so-called solid reality was built on intangible ideas, hopes, wishes, and needs. Obama grasps this. He understands that tough policy decisions, which of course must be made, aren’t the stuff of inspiration. His campaign is a litmus test for whether a critical mass has formed or wether we are witnessing winds of change that will soon die down. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, but the future of America’s self-image does. National awareness has been stuck for eight years, and breaking it free needs the inspiration Obama is trying to apply.
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