The messianic cult around Obama was always at odds with his modest policy proposals. But events can force politicians to be bold. The new president has a chance to redefine American liberalismby Michael Lind / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
What is the meaning of Obama? It is, of course, impossible to evaluate a presidency that has yet to occur, notwithstanding premature declarations that he will be a “transformational” president to compare with giants like Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. But it is not too early to analyse the meaning of his election.
The fact that a mostly white democracy has elected a biracial chief executive is epochal in itself. Liberal democracy is now firmly rooted in much of the world, but many, if not most, liberal societies today would not choose to be led by someone who does not look like a member of the dominant tribe. Its history of slavery and apartheid notwithstanding, that can no longer be said of the United States of America.
The nightmare of the racist right in the US has always been “race-mixing.” It was particularly moving therefore to see a mixed-race president, who had begun his presideantial race in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, conclude it on election night with an address to a jubilant multiracial crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park, named after the general who defeated the slave south in the civil war. There were many ghosts among that crowd.
But Obama was not elected because the American people chose to set an example of colour-blind democracy for the world. He was elected because the 2008 presidential election was a referendum on George W Bush’s two disastrous terms. And whether Obama’s election marks a transformation or a restoration depends on how the regime of his predecessor is viewed. If Bush’s presidency was an aberration, then Obama’s election can be seen as a restoration. On the other hand, if Bush’s presidency was typical of an earlier pattern, then Obama’s election can be viewed as a novel departure.
In my view, Obama’s election was a restoration, not a transformation. Bush’s presidency was an aberration, even by the standards of the Republican presidents who preceded him: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and his father. Of these, Nixon, Ford and the first Bush were moderate Republicans who dismissed radical-right ideas of dismantling the welfare state or repudiating America’s post-1945 liberal internationalism. And Reagan, the hero of the “movement conservatism” that began with Barry Goldwater in 1964, was much more moderate in practice than George W Bush, who sought to inherit Reagan’s mantle rather than his father’s.