Truth be told, Barack Obama is not a terribly remarkable fellow. Biracial prep school graduate, small time political hustler, minor league progressive politician- other than the biracial part, the blue cities are thick with this sort of character.
I have long believed a man must be destined to be President. Men of long and highly successful political careers have failed to reach this most lofty of offices, only because the fates that order our lives did not so will it, and the stars, for a few early months of an Olympic year, did not grant them favor.
For some, election as President of the United States- head of state, head of government, Commander in Chief- was the culmination of years of politicking, governing, organizing, preparing- Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan fall in this category. Roosevelt was a man of the establishment, Reagan was more of an insurgent, but they had both been around a long time, governors of large states. Their hour arrived, and they stood up.
For others, it was more a matter of chance, but not chance unaided by the gods. Bill Clinton was a prodigy, but not a man close to the huge and sclerotic establishment of his party. But the spectacular failure of that establishment- three terms of Republican presidents in a center-left country- as well as the spectacular failure of the liberal, Northeastern establishment Republican George H.W. Bush- cleared his path. But make no mistake, the path prepared for him, he was prepared to take it, something many can’t do.
Eight years of comfort and prosperity, Clinton was ready to do something only two other presidents have done- leave the office as a legacy for his vice president. That the two men who achieved office in this way, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush, are remembered as mediocrities, does not detract from the towering status of their predecessors, Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan. And yet Albert Gore Jr. was not fated to be President. The man whose fate that was- George W. Bush- benefited as Clinton had from the tiredness of the opposition and the failure of his own party to prepare for its next grand chance.
George W. Bush is indeed a fascinating character, whose spectacular wielding of immense power is all the remarkable for the surpassingly strange manner in which it was done. I think I’ll have to provide my take on this, and maybe it will be preserved on some server in the far-off decades when his real history is written. But with reference to my current point, Bush II came to function more as a symbol than a real person. What he actually was and actually did became completely obscured in what his opponents feared he was and to a lesser extent, in what his supporters hoped he would be.
Getting back to Obama, he is indeed an unremarkable individual. Nothing against him on that account- lucky is better than good any day. But the gap between what he represents- competent, confident progressive governance, unmarred by the dissent of the stupid, angry, and unenlightened- and what he actually is, a guy who makes too many speeches and plays an awful lot of golf, is wide indeed.
But what the hell were these people expecting? Progressive governance unhindered by unenlightened dissent doesn’t even occur in Berkeley or Ann Arbor, so why would it suddenly occur in DC?
But even Obama is not the apotheosis of politician as symbol- no, he is not the undisputed ruler even of this. That would go to the anti-Obama, the person hated, feared and vilified more than any officeholder in the US, Sarah Palin.
Why is Palin a symbol? Well, just think about it. What do you really know about her substantive actions and positions? Anything? No? It is just as I though. I follow politics pretty closely, and I can’t say I know anything about what she did or what she stands for. I will offer my presupposition though. I believe that poltically, Alaska is like other small, remote jurisdictions like Hawaii and Guam. Which is to say, you have Republicans and Democrats, but there is no ideological difference, it is all a matter of getting your hands on the loot.
Palin seems to have been a “good government” candidate, opposed to the grifters of both parties. These types occasionally show up when the usual game gets tiresome to the electorate. The current Republican governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, seems to be of this mold.
Palin doesn’t seem to be an ideological conservative, a conservative activist, or even particularly conservative in any way. Her first drawback as a political figure is her sexiness, or better put her animal vitality. She’s fairly good-looking, but that’s not the issue. She has a primitive charisma, significantly sexual, and a personal power that deeply frightens and upsets a large portion of the population. People who went to good colleges, and people who look to those people for leadership and wisdom, know that these kind of people exist but the idea frightens them and they would prefer to forget it.
That segues into her second drawback, the deep belief in a technological elite of government, primarily composed of Ivy League graduates. The left wing investment in this is obvious; the right however has established an array of counter-institutions, also primarily drawing from the Ivy League, and these people want to be the ones running things. The fact that the alternatives are low-ranking Naval Academy graduate John McCain, and affirmative action Ivy Leaguer Barack Obama, neither of whom probably has an IQ meaningfully higher than Sarah Palin’s- if they are in fact higher at all, does not seem to matter. It’s the style of the thing.
A politician can go a long way on being a symbol- FDR certainly exploited it to the maximum degree, but he also ran things. Politicians must do things. And they either are or aren’t doing these things while people are projecting their hopes and fears onto them.
George W. Bush did mostly what he wanted to do, which was put through mildly liberal policies and programs while being caricatured as a right wing fanatic. Barack Obama is doing little, mostly talking up initiatives of Congress, while being idolized as the ideal of progressive leadership. But people are people, and not symbols, at least until they have been dead for some time. A living man, as they used to like to say, puts his trousers on one leg at a time.