If Audacious Hope Turns Into Dispirited Cynicism

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 25, 2008, issue of March 07, 2008.
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Of course there are risks; there always are. Let us be frank. It is by no means clear that the next president, no matter how skillful, will be adequate to the multiple challenges we face: ending a war, restoring American honor, dealing with the Medicare crisis (and the crisis of healthcare costs in general), reversing global warming, blocking the terrorist threat, fixing the economy, shrinking the income gap.

And the truth is that the risks are even greater if that president is Barack Obama.

The Obama risks run in a direction quite different from the canards so scurrilously and insistently whirling around the Jewish community, propelled by people either malign or naïve. Against those, it should be sufficient to quote Rep. Barney Frank, himself a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who cites the support Obama enjoys from the Jewish community of his home city, Chicago, as evidence that the accusations against Obama are all foam, no beer.

By now it is stunningly obvious that Obama brings prodigious talents to the task. More even than his brilliance as a speaker, the improbable campaign he has until now so successfully waged is evidence of that. From its fundraising effort to its state-by-state organization, the Obama campaign has combined meticulous management with bold imagination. It is hardly, as one pundit called it this week, “a juggernaut” — an inexorable force that crushes all in its path — but it is a tour de force.

The specific Obama risk derives from the senator’s theory of governing, a point that no commentator seems to have picked up on even though Obama himself has repeated it again and again. Instead, we hear and read that there’s just about no difference between Obama and Clinton — a smidgen on healthcare and on when to sit down with your enemies, half a smidgen on some other details, but nothing of real moment.

Wrong. There’s a vast difference, one of enormous consequence. It is embedded in Obama’s insistence that he means to govern not from the top down, but from the outside in.

Perhaps this difference can be best understood by recapitulating an intra-familial debate I’ve been engaged in for some weeks now.

Look, my realist relative says, he is going to bump hard into Congress, and there’s no way he’s going to be able to bring them together, as he claims he wants to. He is simply naïve.

But you’re missing the point, I’ve been telling him. Obama intends to deal with Congress by employing the core principles of community organization. He means to mobilize the citizens and have them bend Congress.

Whatever the array of motives that make a member of Congress support this or oppose that, every member of Congress is sensitive to constituency sentiments. Mobilized constituencies are power plants, perhaps even juggernauts. They become the change agents.

There are at least two iffy aspects to my thesis. First: For all that this has been a remarkable campaign, and for all that Obama has been masterful at mobilizing an ever-growing constituency, once we move from the broad principles a campaign evokes to the detailed proposals that governing requires, the constituents may lose interest.

People may not want to spend the next four years (or eight) being mobilized; the campaign is exciting, even fun, but slogging through the work of governing is rarely fun, often a yawn. Or the people may discover that it’s considerably easier to agree to broad principles than it is to maintain that consensus once the principles have been translated into policies.

Second: Congress is not an easy target. A pincer movement that seeks to capture and convert Congress, the White House on one side, the hinterland on the other? Maybe, but it’s hard to think of a solid precedent.

And all those special interests that, according to Obama, are strangling government, they may be cowed, but they will not easily be conquered and dispatched. The lobbyists’ livelihoods depend on their being able to work the system from the inside out; they will correctly perceive an effort to govern from the outside in as a clear and urgent danger, and they will respond accordingly.

The risk, in other words, is that Obama may fail — may fail spectacularly — and his theory may thereby be discredited. And if he does, very many of the new people he’s attracted to the world of politics are liable to conclude that there’s no change you can really believe in, that cynicism rather than hope is the safest course.

I vividly recall my reaction to the inauguration of Bill Clinton: “If these two can’t do it,” I wrote, “then perhaps it can’t be done.” Now, almost 16 years later, it is clear that those two did not “do it.”

But I am not yet ready to say that it can’t be done, that our nation’s decline cannot be reversed. I very much doubt that it can be reversed by the kind of tinkering I foresee in the event of a Hillary Clinton presidency, and I am confident it cannot be reversed in the event of a John McCain presidency. That is why, on balance, I find the Obama risk acceptable.

But it is a risk that comes with a price. The Obama theory works only if those of us who believe that it deserves to be tested recognize that we ourselves are part of that theory.

That is what the senator means when he says that we are the change we seek. We must be ready to stay not only inspired but also mobilized. The campaign is the foretaste, the appetizer; there are many courses yet to come, and we dare not leave the table prematurely. There is, after all, a wondrous dessert if we stay the courses.


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