Dreams of Obama

Transformational president or another disappointment? That's up to us
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Photo illustration by Don Button

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Barack Obama, it is true, is a transformational leader. But he needs a transformational movement to become a transformational president.

He is transformational not only by his charisma and brilliance, but by embodying the possibility of an African American being chosen president in the generation following the civil rights movement. Whether he wins or loses, the vast movement inspired by Obama will become the next generation of American social activists.

For many Americans, the possibility of Obama is a deeply personal one. I mean here the mythic Obama who exists in our imaginations, not the literal Obama whose centrist positions will disappoint many progressives.

Myths are all-important, as Obama writes in Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press, 2004). Fifty years ago, the mythic Obama existed only as an aspiration, an ideal, in a country where interracial love was taboo and interracial marriage was largely banned. As Obama himself declared on the night of the Iowa primary, "Some said this night would never come."

The early civil rights movement, the jazz musicians, and the Beat poets dreamed up this mythic Obama before the literal Obama could materialize. His African father and white countercultural mother dared to dream and love him into existence, incarnate him, at the creative moment of the historic march on Washington. Only the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation opened space for the dream to rise politically.

In one of his best oratorical moments, Obama summons the spirit of social movements built from the bottom up, from the Revolutionary War to the abolitionist crusade, to the women's suffrage cause, to the eight-hour day and the rights of labor, ending with the time of his birth when the walls came down in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., and Delano. As he repeats this mantra of movements thousands of times to millions of Americans, a new cultural understanding becomes possible. This is the foundation of a new American story that is badly needed.

Obama's emerging narrative also includes but supercedes the other major explanation of American specialness, the narrative of the "melting pot," by noting that whatever "melting" did occur was always in the face of massive and entrenched opposition from the privileged.

John McCain represents a very different aspect of the American story. His inability to limit the adventurist appetite for war is the most dangerous element of the McCain, and the Republican, worldview. It is paralleled, of course, by their inability to limit the corporate appetite for an unregulated market economy. In combination, the brew is an economy directed to the needs of the country club rich, the oil companies, and military contractors. A form of crony capitalism slouches forward in place of either competitive markets or state regulation.

Yet McCain has a good chance, the best chance among Republicans, of winning in November. He appeals to those whose idea of the future is more of the past, buying time against the inevitable. And McCain is running against Obama, who threatens our institutions and culture simply by representing the unexpected and unauthorized future.

My prediction: if he continues on course, Obama will win the popular vote by a few percentage points in November, but will be at serious risk in the Electoral College.

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