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Barack Obama and the Politics of Expectation

by Benjamin Ramm



“rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Romans 12:12

On 22nd March 2001, in an infamous moment during the election for the Peruvian presidency, Eliane Karp – wife of Alejandro Toledo, soon to be the nation’s first indigenous head of state – declared at a rally in the Andean town of Huaraz: “los Apus han hablado, y finalmente se romperá
la maldición de los 500 años”
. [The mountain gods have spoken, and finally will vanquish the curse of the last 500 years]. Then, in a moment of extreme audacity, she invoked the sun god: “¡Pa-cha-cútec! ¡Pa-cha-cútec!” – in the Quechua language, ‘He who remakes the world’.

By July 2004, Alejandro Toledo had approval ratings of just 8%. He had become a victim both of
his image, so deftly cultivated during the campaign, and of his inability to read the rhythms of government, to comprehend how it evolves, and to protect the buds of change as they began to bloom. What can Barack Obama learn from Alejandro Toledo’s experience, and how can he harvest the promise of a whole generation?

A politics of expectation requires a polis of expectation – that is, some consensus about what would constitute a successful tenure in government. Voters tend to select their candidate on grounds of temperament, judgment and ideological affiliation, although only a small portion of the electorate weighs all three, at least equally. Nonetheless, Obama is in a position to claim as a mandate consent on a whole range of legislative issues which, had they been put to the vote individually, might not have garnered comparable support. How the president treats this capital – whether he hoards it, spreads it, seeks to make interest on it – tells us how he prospects the challenges ahead, and how
he will deal with the (inevitable) dissonance.

There is a passivity about the whole notion of expectation; it suggests consideration of an action outside of our volition, and places the onus squarely on the expected. Obama anticipated this reflex when he initiated his campaign:

Too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own.
That is why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us – it must be about what we can do together.
                                           (Declaration of Candidacy, Springfield, Illinois, 10th February 2007)

Such an appeal not only devolves expectation away from the president – a canny political manoeuvre – but emphasises that any real change begins (and, for liberals, ultimately ends) in the empowerment of the individual citizen, in the realisation of his or her agency, and in their ability to make informed choices for their families and communities. It is, in other words, about the fostering of response-ability. “We need to usher in a new era of responsibility”, Obama remarked in a crucial speech on Father’s Day 2008, in which he formulated an implicit contract of commitment between the individual and the state:

If fathers are doing their part; if they’re taking their responsibilities seriously to be there for their children, and set high expectations for them, and instill in them a sense of excellence and empathy, then our government should meet them halfway.
                                                            (Father’s Day address, Chicago, Illinois, 15th June 2008)

The act of example is key here, in the sphere of the family as in the conduct of government, and citizens have a duty to challenge those who have “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men” (“what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child – it’s the courage to raise one”). This call to “shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear” echoes the approach of two great transformative Democratic presidents, F.D.R. and J.F.K., and derives from the convictions Obama formed during his years as a community organiser, when half the battle was getting residents to attend and be attentive. If Obama’s politics are anything, they are anti-passive, and contrary to the claims made by the McCain-Palin campaign, are conceived in distinction to the centralised welfarism that shirks from sharing power. Not for Obama the insurgent ‘power corrupts’ philosophy, as espoused by Arundhati Roy:

The only way to keep power on a tight leash is to oppose it, never seek to own it or have it. Opposition is permanent.
                                                                            (Interview with The Guardian, 28th July 2001)

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