The Politics of Yesterday, and of Tomorrow

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.
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There were two oddly related meetings in Washington, D.C., recently. You’ve probably heard of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, the one that featured Rush Limbaugh. It was well covered by the media — C-SPAN and Fox News carried large chunks of it live — and not just because of Limbaugh. Joe the Plumber was there, and John Bolton and Mike Huckabee and Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney and sundry members of Congress, too, along with some 8,000 registered participants. CPAC’s organizers were particularly pleased with the large number of young people who turned up, some 2,000 of them.

The other meeting was called PowerShift, a mobilization of young people organized by the Energy Action Coalition, a network of 50 national organizations that advocate for clean energy and responsible climate policies. It received very little press coverage, though it drew 12,000 young men and women — mostly between ages 18 and 26 — to its deliberations.

It is tempting at this point to insert a collection of sound bites from Limbaugh’s 80-minute (60 over his allotted time) CPAC speech, but that would not be fair. To get the full flavor of his incoherent rant, you really should listen to all of it. If you do, you will learn that Limbaugh is a kind of Ronald Reagan with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), a man whose enthusiasms far outpace his thought processes, a man who sees the world through ruse-colored glasses.

CPAC was principally a nod to yesterday; PowerShift is the more likely prelude to tomorrow. And the reason for that is not just what PowerShift reveals about a new generation of Americans, nor even its manifest success at community organization. The reason for that, in very large measure, is Barack Obama.

Here we are, less than halfway through those clichéd “first 100 days” of a new administration, far too early to label it either a success or a failure, but not at all too soon to be dazzled by our new president’s grasp of both politics and policy. Obama inherited more a slop bucket than a full plate, but that does not seem to discourage him. Instead, he is a stunning exemplar of sangfroid, of composure in the face of difficulty.

So much for the stereotypical assumption that childhood trauma, of which Obama experienced more than his fair share, leaves distorting scar tissue. Instead, we have a president who, mirabile dictu, seems utterly free of neurosis, Bill Clinton’s intelligence without Bill Clinton’s self-destructive appetites.

I know of no one, even among his most fervent enthusiasts, who believed that Obama would actually move so quickly to redeem his campaign promises. And surely no one imagined that a month and a half into his tenure, the Obama family would emerge as the idealized American family, the poster family for a newly inspired nation.

Yes, the market plunges downward. Yes, the sudden scope and depth of this recession suggest a recovery that will take a very long time to restore the economic growth we have come to expect. Yes, there will be, as Obama has said, missteps and mistakes along the way. And no, it is doubtful that the Obama agenda will be fully realized. But it is a very substantial comfort, and one we’d mostly given up on, to have at the helm so steady a hand, connected as it is to so capacious a mind and, apparently, so true a heart.

Does that sound too gushy? I well recall my reaction when I attended the first inaugural of Clinton and Gore. I wrote then that if these two could not do it, perhaps it could not be done. And the disappointing truth is that they did not do it. But now I see the PowerShift meetings and begin to understand the relationship between Obama’s strategic ambitions for our nation and the tactic called “community organizing.” Strategy and tactic are mutually reinforcing, reciprocally inspiring. It turns out that what many of us thought was “merely” terrific rhetoric — “We are the change that we seek” — has real meaning. Essentially, PowerShift and all the other ongoing efforts at energizing and mobilizing people old and young are critical components of the new political equation.

It matters that Barack Obama is the first African American to become our president. That is, as everyone acknowledged in the first post-election days, many with tears in their eyes, a historic event. These days, however, it matters less and less. His multiracial background is among the most interesting things about Obama, but it is far from the most important. The most important is that he is an adult, as whole a person as we have seen in public life in a very long time. And he is a teacher who knows the first and foremost lesson of distinguished pedagogy: You don’t talk down to your students. He tells us, as he promised during his campaign he would, not what we want to hear but what we need to know.

The Rush Limbaugh people don’t get it. They are happily vitriolic, moaning and groaning and cursing about our nation’s turn to “socialism.” Listening to them and reading their speeches and their blogs can be dispiriting not because their language is so bloated nor because they have almost nothing save “lower taxes” to say but because it is as if the entire nation, its current anxieties and economic woes notwithstanding, is enjoying a block party to which they, the Limbaugh people, were invited — but which they’ve chosen to boycott, to grouse about. This, they tell us, is the “core constituency” of the Republican Party. Yet it is obvious that there are large numbers of Republicans who are neither amused by Ann Coulter nor proud to be associated with Rush Limbaugh. It is for them to disentangle from that crowd.

As it is for us to move on.

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