Thursday, November 6, 2008

Voters Who Love Too Much

As I walked down Michigan Avenue after Obama's election to the presidency, I passed thousands of people who were shouting and celebrating. Young people mounted the concrete traffic dividers, banging on drums and chanting "Yes we can!" or "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" They chanted his name over and over again, dancing in the street, their faces lit up with indescribable excitement. And I have to confess: it made me uncomfortable.

It's not that I don't celebrate Obama's election. There are a thousand reasons why his opponent needed to be defeated, and why his victory must be lauded. It’s historic, and it carries deep meaning for the entire planet. One of the first reasons I ever had for supporting Obama was the sheer wonder it would be to have his face, name, and voice represent the United States on the world stage.

Yet as the heavy burden of the Bush years is lifted, I feel more trepidation than relief. I’m a million miles away from that fist-pumping, dancing joy I witnessed.

As progressive young people shout the name of our President-elect, I must ask again: what precisely are they celebrating? Do I even want to know? After all, Obama won an election that revolved all too often around personality. Do these drum-beating enthusiasts really care about his positions on the war, on gay marriage, on the bailout, on health care? Or is Barack Obama merely a figure they adore, a man whose rhetorical power moves them and makes them believe in a world more beautiful than ours?

I believe it’s a crucial civic question. After all, when you’ve purchased T-shirts and buttons and maracas bearing Obama’s image; when you’ve made Hussein your middle name on Facebook; when you’ve called his acceptance speech a piece of great literature; how can your relationship with Obama possibly evolve into a healthy one between constituent and elected official? Will these jubilant masses be capable of anger if Obama’s plans for U.S. troops amounts to a mere shifting of personnel from one Middle East danger zone to another? Will they be capable of resistance when they discover that Obama’s health care plan may be one of the first things to go? Will they identify Obama’s capitulations to corporate interests before it is too late, or will they still be drunk on the thrill of watching their team win the biggest of game there is?

In my opinion, this is a frightening time for Obama supporters. The man whose inspiring words still ring in your ears has retreated into a room with his advisors. He no longer requires your vote. The names of people from a centrist Clinton administration are surfacing in our newspapers. Obama’s expected to name the Secretary of the Treasury soon – a position of increased importance, given the economic crisis – and he’s choosing from a list that includes a Goldman Sachs executive, a former chief economist for the World Bank (“women-just-aren’t-good-at-science” guy), and the man who helped negotiate JPMorgan Chase’s first giant acquisition. Some people say Obama’s first staff pick Rahm Emanuel will help keep Democrats from “overreaching” after their significant gains. The same old voices are emerging from the woodwork, encouraging Obama to move to the middle, to be honest with the American people about what is and isn’t “possible”.

Obama himself may or may not be a change agent. But he is certainly now surrounded by people who have a vested interest in keeping some things very much the way they are. People who think his moderate health care plan would be too much, too soon.

Honestly, fuck that. If we’re smart, we’ll wake up from this dream-state and stop singing the praises of the man who now charts the course of our country. Your President-elect is not your boyfriend, your homeboy, your savior or your plaything. He’s responsible to the American people. But if we keep banging on drums and chanting his name, we won’t look like a very difficult crowd to please.

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