As a pol-watcher since the days when nobody even thought Dick Nixon was a crook, I continue to marvel at the enormous freight of hope and longing stacked on the slender shoulders of Barack Obama.
Has there ever been, for instance, an inspirational calendar for a president who wasn’t even president yet? The other day on the radio, I heard one unemployed man in Ohio say, and I think I quote, “I just can’t wait for Obama to get in there. I need a job!”
Comparisons are made with Kennedy, of course, but Kennedy didn’t take office during a crisis, unless you count the Cold War as an ongoing crisis or include the so-called “missile gap” with the Soviets, which turned out to be largely a useful fiction created by the New Frontiersmen. And Kennedy won by the thinnest of margins, and the 24/7 media tide that so aided Obama did not exist in those distant days of the Sixties.
Obama has tried, wisely, to lower expectations, but the country’s having none of it so far. And now comes the pre-Inaugural Concert on the Mall, with Bruce and Beyonce and Stevie and JT and will.i.am pumping out hopehopehope, and then comes Obama’s Inaugural Address, which will of course be wonderful, because he could recite from the phone book and turn it into poetry.
In that connection, I saw a great thought in that Atlantic issue I praised the other day:
“Blacks accustomed to leaders who style themselves as America’s conscience, rather than its decision makers–and also to viewing their countrymen through “the Duboisian filter, the dark filter”–will now watch a black first family at the very center of American life.”
That’s one of those things so obvious we almost overlook it. At the national level at least, all of us are used to seeing black leaders as moral leaders, rhetorical leaders, prophets and preachers exhorting the nation to fulfill its long-delayed promises for justice and dignity and so on. They could stand at the periphery holding the check that America had written and demanding full payment. They didn’t have to sit down and decide just which policy devoted to which part of which problem might help the unfortunate cash that check.
Obama knows how to play the preacher, too, and we’ll hear plenty of those Kingian notes in his address. But he will then have to do what King, Jackson, Sharpton, et. al. never had to do: Climb down from the pulpit, walk into the Oval Office and get to work climbing a mountain of intractable problems. He’ll have to be the inspiring orator and the guy fixing the furnace at the same time.
I hope he succeeds, and I hope the leaden, gray prose of governing doesn’t choke all the poetry out of him. We’ll see.
As Dr. King said in what turned out to be his final speech, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. . . ” We’ll see what Obama can do to make those days better.