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Barack Obama and the Politics of Expectation

by Benjamin Ramm

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As the path is winding, and the vista uplifting, Obama is at pains to ensure that no citizen falls off the edge. He has argued convincingly that the regulation of market excess is not an aberration, but rather a continuation, of the American political tradition: and that, just as workers and legislators joined forces after the Civil War to curb the labour abuses of the robber barons, and as F.D.R. “chose to act – regulating the market, putting people back to work, expanding bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement”, so we can no longer subscribe to the post-Reagan Republican dictum that says, in Obama’s characterisation, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – even if you don’t have boots”. (Indeed, our current troubles stem in part from the repealing of elements of this earlier regulation. Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from Reagan to Bush Jr., wrote – ironically in hindsight – that legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, one of the laws alluded to by Obama, was “rather naive ... a jumble of economic irrationality and ignorance ... utter nonsense in the context of today’s economic knowledge”). In the face of this, Obama inverts the ‘trickle-down’ philosophy – that helping yourself is helping others – by arguing that helping others is helping yourself:

You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you have that obligation. It’s primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.
                                                   (Commencement address, Knox College, Illinois, 4th June 2005)

This is the “new spirit of patriotism” about which Obama spoke on election night, and which commentators compared to the call of ‘Camelot’, who declared, in a similar vein, that “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. Obama’s remarkable empathy stems in part from his familiarity with the margins of different societies, and with those who live so close to the precipice – there is, he noted, “no margin for error in their lives”:

The simple life is easy to extol
when you are rich enough, but it’s hard
to say if ‘the pursuit of happiness’
is the same as being happy.
                                                                                                         (Neil Curry, ‘Monticello’)

The pursuit of liberal government is to create and maintain a space in which every American can prosper, or fail – and not fear failure for the lack of opportunity which may follow. Fallibility is central to Obama’s philosophy of self and society, and to his political methodology: in his first interview as President-elect, he remarked that “what you see in F.D.R. – which I hope my team
can emulate – is not always getting it right, but projecting a sense of confidence, and a willingness to try things and experiment”. America, if she is to be faithful to her vision, must possess the confidence and capacity for self-criticism, and the desire to ‘fail better’:

Have we failed at times? Absolutely. Will you occasionally fail when you embark on your own American journey? You surely will. But the test is not perfection.
The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time.
                                                   (Commencement address, Knox College, Illinois, 4th June 2005)

It is in fallibility, and in the humility drawn from it, that (paradoxically) “the perfection begins”. For Bobby Kennedy, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”, and can realise expectations of themselves: “It is when expectation replaces submission, when despair is touched with the awareness of possibility, that the forces of human desire and the passion for justice are unloosed”. To be aware of this potential, to “dwell in Possibility”, is be alive to America’s story:

If our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper [106], what change will they see? What progress will we have made?
                                                     (Election night address, Chicago, Illinois, 4th November 2008)

To add to the ‘awe’ and the ‘anxiety’, here is the ‘audacity’ of possibility: the opportunity to forge the world, to place our “hands on the arc of history” – an image conjured from Dr. King, and a sentiment from Bobby Kennedy:

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny.

These words are immediately followed by a revealing statement of disarming frankness:

There is pride in that, even arrogance; but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.
                                                                                              (‘To Seek A Newer World’, 1967)

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