Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the faithful, the cynical and the sceptical...

Responses to the election of Barack Obama.

The fact that George Bush is still the President of the United States hasn't stopped most political pundits and bloggers delivering their verdicts.

First the cynical, of which John Pilger is fairly representative:
"He says he wants to build up US military power; and he threatens to ignite a new war in Pakistan, killing yet more brown-skinned people."
Regular readers of Pilger's work will know he's strongly opposed to killing brown-skinned people - unless, of course, it's other brown-skinned people doing the killing. In these circumstances, he is often 'reluctantly' in favour. It's what we might have expected from someone who had so little positive to say about Nelson Mandela's role in the transition from apartheid - something he alludes to in the article linked above.

Beyond this, what more can one say? Pilger is the political equivalent of the Jehovah's Witness earnestly awaiting the apocalypse and to keep himself pure for that day, he makes sure he has no truck with the Methodists or the Baptists or the Episcopalians. But the parousia is delayed, leaving him and his ilk forlorn and embittered, preaching to an ever-shrinking choir of like-minded souls. Not insane, as some have dismissed him - just preaching a gospel that is too narrow to do justice to the human condition.

Having said this, I don't find much I can identify with in what the faithful are preaching. I don't find that those who are claiming that Obama will heal the world are exactly giving me much to hang my faith on. Don't get me wrong - Obama's victory, first over Clinton, then McCain was cool. Obama's cool. Everyone agrees. I don't know anyone who doesn't. I read that some people dissent but I don't really believe they exist. I certainly haven't met one. Goddamit all, even George Bush thinks Obama is cool. But when even that old curmudgeon Howard Jacobson starts getting dewy-eyed and imagines coolness necessarily translates into political substance, I start to get worried:
"His mind shines through him. We might be singing the virtues of democracy right now, but his are refined, educated looks. They are not available to everybody. An Ivy League university won't guarantee you a demeanour like Obama's – Bush went to Yale, don't forget – but you'd be hard-pressed to bear yourself that way without the assured enlightenment that education confers."
I had to laugh at this. My father was an academic - I grew up surrounded with the educated. Can Howard Jacobson really have lived this long without noticing the way the average academic shambles their way through life? Generally occupying some spot on the autistic spectrum, they can barely dress themselves - and doing practical shit like cooking or operating electric appliances usually presents something of a challenge. To this day, I don't understand how or why my father was allowed to have a driving license. Obama's deportment is a function of privilege - not just education. Nah - can we have a dose of (healthy, I trust) scepticism please? I'll give it a go. Here's a few reasons to be sceptical.

1) It should be taught in the kindergarten of American politics that Congress, in relation to the executive branch of government, is the hands-down winner of the most powerful legislature in the world competition. Yet this simple observation seems to have escaped the "Obama will wipe every tear away from their eyes" fraternity in the MSM. This is not to say that we don't get the 'coat-tails' authority that a President can have in Congress, which brings me to my second point...

2) Gene links to a piece in the New Yorker, which he feels puts Obama's victory 'in historical context'. It's a long piece. I searched for historical context but lo - I found none. Take this, for example:
"That November, Roosevelt defeated President Herbert Hoover in a landslide. His election ended an age of conservative Republican rule, created a Democratic coalition that endured for the next four decades, and fundamentally changed the American idea of the relationship between citizen and state."
It is, as I said, a long piece - but frankly I think we can stop right there and take account of this: in the electoral college, Obama's victory looks like a landslide but in terms of his share of the popular vote it certainly wasn't. Consider the circumstances. We had the most unpopular President since Nixon involved in two controversial wars, presiding over an economic meltdown against the background of the fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history. His potential Republican successor was 72 - he ran a car crash of a campaign against a candidate that simply oozes charisma and 'coolness' - yet the best they could manage was a 6% lead in the popular vote? To describe this as some kind of epoch-making 'seismic shift' is dangerously complacent, as well as fundamentally inaccurate.

3) The 'change' candidate, despite not having taken office yet, is already showing signs of being the continuity candidate - if his appointments thus far are anything to go by. He clearly holds to the LBJ philosophy that it's better to have your enemies in the tent pissing out than the other way around - hence the number of Clinton-era personnel floating around his 'transition team' already. It might be a smart move but it strikes me as rather risky - the most risky being the all but certain appointment of Hillary as his Secretary of State. You don't have to share Christopher Hitchens' hostility to - some would say obsession with - the Clintons to agree with him when he said that whatever this represents, it isn't the 'change' people thought they were voting for.

4) Will he be the new FDR? Let's hope he isn't so conservative. There are two things that have, despite the evidence, cemented FDR's reputation. One was the perception that he was 'doing something' - never mind if what he actually did was particularly effective. The other is war. It was mobilisation of resources required for re-armament that rescued the US economy - who knows what would have happened without this? What we do know is that prior to this, unemployment remained stubbornly high - and that part of the reason for this was that fiscal policy was actually being tightened in the couple of years before the shift to the war economy. We can only hope Obama learns the right lessons. One thing FDR was right about was trade - opposing Hoover's adherence to the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Protectionism is a tempting policy in times of recession - especially when governments pursue policies of fiscal expansion because there's always the impulse to avoid a situation where tax-payers' dollars will bleed out into exports. But the dangers of trying to run a closed economy are greater. This at least I think FDR understood - let's hope Obama does too. And let's hope his friends that will make up the majority in Congress do too - because hitherto the evidence that they do hasn't exactly been unequivocal - to say no more than that.

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