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Barack Obama and the Politics of Expectation

by Benjamin Ramm

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Faced with a dictatorship, Roy’s outlook would be a democratic one; but in a democracy, it can only lead to a dictatorship of interest, and stands against the very idea of citizenship. By contrast, Obama’s 30 minute infomercial ended with a call to power:

...and most importantly, I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.
                                                       (‘American Stories, American Solutions’, 29th October 2008)

If this web of reciprocity is to hold taut, “each of us, in our own lives, will have to accept responsibility...for adapting to a more competitive economy, for strengthening our communities, and sharing some measure of sacrifice”. It takes maturity to address what Obama calls the “chronic avoidance of tough decisions”, and to understand that long-term goals can demand the abeyance of short-term satisfaction:

I won’t pretend this thing is going to be easy: it’s not. I won’t pretend this won’t come without a cost: it won’t... It’s going to require some nerve, some courage; it will require that all of us sacrifice, and all of us pull our weight.
                                                   (Campaign rally in East Lansing, Michigan, 2nd October 2008)

Sacrifice, austerity, civic duty: this all sounds rather severe, an idiom out of vogue in progressive circles, and evocative of a culture more deferential than meritocratic. In fact, Obama aims to work towards what Cass Sunstein calls a ‘deliberative democracy’, in which individuals can “actually be citizens, rather than subjects”, and – through the development of civil institutions and community organisations – actively inhabit and alter the public realm. ‘We are the change that we seek’; but how many of us govern our lives as we would have our leaders govern our nation: how many, about our own shortcomings, are open, honest, accountable, self-critical, dedicated to reform, unflagging in the face of failure? To be a citizen is to realise, in George Packer’s phrase, “politics as a mature calling”; and after an epoch of irresponsibility, it comes not a moment too soon.

What, then, is the role of a leader in this environment of renewed responsibility? In part, it must be to harness and channel the desire of individuals to be citizens; to “organize and measure”, in the words of J.F.K., “the best of our energies and skills”; to frame the challenges that lie ahead of us, so that we may comprehend them better; to define and refine these goals, so that we may gauge our priorities; to acknowledge the messiness of process, so that we may learn patience; to survey the scene, so that we may know the terrain (“The road ahead will be long”, Obama warned on election night. “Our climb will be steep”); to contextualise the difficulty and justify the strain, so that people do not “turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own”; to rouse and corral the weary, so that we do not slide into cynicism; to exemplify our aspiration – the spirit rather than the incarnation –

A transparent jubilation, through which
We see the shape we want our lives to be.
                                                                 (David Broadbridge, ‘The Republic of Glassblowing’)

Above all, Obama’s vision must shed light on and sharpen our own, so that it may be renewed by our own imaginations. Unlike the authoritarian model of leadership, in which the centre is spent quickly – fiscally, rhetorically, emotionally – a liberal leader looks to emphasise sustainability: his template is not unending revolution, but incremental evolution:

I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
                                                    (Election night address, Chicago, Illinois, 4th November 2008)

Whereas the authoritarian state offers an illusion of ease – a deference and abdication to the centre – Obama revels in reminding his supporters of the travails of progress, casting their endeavours in an epic light. (It is said that Goebbels expressed incredulity at the repeated stress Churchill placed in his radio addresses on quite how difficult the task was facing the Allies: why, he reasoned, would a leader want to accentuate difficulty? Fascism, which seems so energetic, emerges as the ultimate politics of laziness). Part of this ‘difficulty’ is a thread of anti-populism that has been consistent in Obama’s thinking – and, for the most part, in his campaigning – which deems that citizens should expect to be challenged, and that “we won’t always agree” (and, moreover, that what is expected by the majority of voters is not always right). Obama promises in return sincerity and transparency (“I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face”), as well as a critical empathy (“I will listen to you, especially when we disagree”), so that he may foster collaboration and inclusiveness (“To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too”). It is fortunate that such a subtle communicator was chosen ‘for such a time as this’, and fitting that he should initiate a weekly YouTube ‘fireside chat’ – an intimate format, and a promising one for a politician with a rare talent for inspiring confidence.

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