I sat at work last night, thinking about what to do with my evening. I could go home, like most nights, and work on a little project I will share here at some point soon, or… Obama is in town.
I had voted for Obama that morning, and I’m excited about him, but the undertow of habit is strong in my mind. So I struggled with debate for a while. But I managed to get myself up, treated myself to a rare cab ride, and made my way to the Hyatt Regency.
And after an interminable wait, being shuffled from ballroom to ballroom, I stood with aching feet in that crowded room in the presence of the man. These are my thoughts:
First, I projected my hopes and fears onto the loose framework of his message, just like everyone else does. It’s sad, I know, but I can’t escape the feeling that a good cult of personality is exactly what this country needs right now.
The challenges that face this country, this world, are very large. The excesses of the last century have left us with a financial crisis and an environmental crisis at the same time. Both multi-trillion-dollar problems that will take decades to resolve, and more than a technocratic laundry list of ‘solutions for America.’ They will require the utter transformation of American society.
I don’t say that lightly. I expect to lose and gain jobs in that process, change careers. I expect to watch my friends struggle, and my parents struggle in retirement. This is going be a dark time, a test.
And it’s going to require all hands on deck. This is it, folks. The party’s gone on very long, and the bills are coming due. There will not necessarily be a nuclear war, though that may happen, and not necessarily famine or plague, though those may be entailed. This could make the Great Depression look like a walk in the park.
When I think about the times ahead for us, I imagine lifting a school bus over my head. That’s how hard it looks to me, what it’s going to demand from me personally, to get through the next few years. And I realize it will take that from more than me: it will take that from every American, and a lot of others besides.
This is the context in which I hear his words: yes, we can.
It’s going to require the depth of vision he demonstrated in his early opposition to the war.
It’s going to take his understanding that Islamic extremism is not the greatest challenge our country faces in the twenty-first century. It’s not even second.
It’s going to require a politics of hope, because the politics of fear could lead to the loss of liberty for this country, and the loss of the dynamicism we desperately need to get through to the other side of what we face.
So this is the substance of Obama: not the laundry list of policy proposals. Though the moral courage, integrity, and commitment to change are important. The depth of vision thing is central, his essential intelligence, and so are his leadership qualities.
FDR had a cult of personality. Abraham Lincoln might not have had one in the moment, but the nation came to understand his contribution after he died. They led us through our greatest trials, and it made a difference. They had something special. I think Obama does too. And I think it’s exactly what we need right now.