Notes On An Inauguration Eve
Today is not only the observance of Martin Luther King Day, or the eve of the inauguration of our 44th President. It happens to be the 1-year anniversary of the Nevada caucus, and I only remember that because Democrats Work was passing out a shirt that read "Make 1.19.08 more than a one-night stand." As today was a national day of service, with thousands of Americans participating in service projects, that proved fairly prophetic. But 1.19.08 was also the one moment during the primary campaign when it looked like Obama wouldn't win the election. I was in Vegas that day, and after an insane caucus at The Wynn, literally one of the craziest political moments I've ever seen in my life, which looked like Halloween with people yelling "HIL-A-RY" and "O-BA-MA" at each other, I went to the main center for the counting and watched Sen. Clinton win. And this was in the age before anyone paid much attention to delegate counts and the fact that Obama probably got more delegates out of the state. Just a few weeks before that age, but in the age. The takeaway I had from that day was that Obama's vaunted organization wasn't enough to break through the Clinton machine, and since nobody knew yet that Clinton was essentially disregarding the other caucuses, I thought that she'd probably be able to do something similar on Super Tuesday. This was also before the Nate Silver boomlet and the fact that the February calendar looked really strong for Obama. He had just lost two states in a row, and with all the griping coming out of his camp about intimidation at Nevada caucus sites and disenfranchisement, there was at least a hint that he would go into heavily black South Carolina and accuse the Clintons of taking away voting rights, leading to all kinds of ugly racial politics. We had those, but not in the same way and not led by the Obama camp, to their credit.
A year ago today, then, was a time when a Clinton restoration looked inevitable. The cynic could say that the past two months of Obama cabinet appointments confirmed it. But the Obama machine was smarter and sharper than most gave them credit for being, and they eventually pushed forward to tomorrow, and something fairly rare in our politics - a man making a meteoric rise from the State Senate to President in four years, without major connections or a family name. And the fact that people with the same skin color as he were forced through slavery to build the Mall where onlookers will watch his swearing-in tomorrow.
There's probably a lesson there, from Nevada to today, about Obama adapting to circumstances, dealing with pressure, and ultimately succeeding. But ultimately, the lesson is that people wanted to get as far away from the narrow cynicism of a George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, a symbol of a new cultural shift, of a more hopeful tomorrow, of an optimistic future, was exactly that character. People seem to really like Obama, and they believe a politician - after years of being shamed by and wanting to forget politicians - can lead again. They are even willing to wait months, if not years (though that's talk and we'll see if the actions match) for the young President's policies to work and his leadership to actually turn us around from the deep hole in which we find ourselves.
There's of course the hard work of governing to come, and as I alluded to, the patience people are willing to extend to Obama today will be harder to see two and three years down the road if unemployment remains high and nobody can get a car loan and big problems like health care and the environment linger. Obama made politics cool again to many - but only in the context of elections, in the choosing of winners and losers that is easily accessible to any sports fan. And so much of that was a reaction to a reviled President who spends his last night in the White House sleeping like a baby, untroubled by the shame he has brought on a nation. So the question is whether there will be any change, to use an overused word, beyond the cultural symbolism.
It was inevitable that the campaign, victory and inauguration of Barack Obama would be juxtaposed against the life and activism of the Rev. Martin Luther King, but the confluence of events that seem to intersect time and again is downright creepy. 2008 was the 40th anniversary of King's death. Obama's nomination speech at the DNC fell on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington. And the Inauguration is the day after the observed holiday of Dr. King, celebrating the 80th year of his birth. The parallels almost suggest that King is watching over Obama. But I think anyone who believes that this would represent the fulfillment of King's hopes hasn't paid a lot of attention to King's words. Ideologically speaking, King would probably have been much happier to see the candidacy of Cynthia McKinney this year; this is someone who was far more radical than the narrow confines of allowable ideology in Washington. He preached nonviolence not only in activism but in foreign policy, and he talked of how "America may go to hell" for what it has done in Vietnam. To his great credit, even Obama recognized that King and he may be linked by skin color, but that doesn't mean they would have been linked in all they do. That's not how King operated. From a January 2008 debate:
BLITZER: We are completely out of time, but we have time for one final question that I'd like to ask all three of you to respond and, if possible, within one minute or less, and it's an important question on this important day... If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, unfortunately, he's not, but if he were alive today, why do you think he would or why should he endorse you?
OBAMA: Well, I don't think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable, and this goes to the core differences, I think, in this campaign. I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. (APPLAUSE) It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, "I'm as smart as my husband. I'd better get the right to vote," them arguing, mobilizing, agitating, and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable, I think that's the key.
So that has been a hallmark of my career, transparency and accountability, getting the American people involved. That's how we're going to bring about change. That's why I want to be president of the United States, to respect the power of the American people to bring about change.
The two things I have noticed about Obama over these last two years are this. One, he is unfailingly honest. He has told America exactly how he will govern and he will seek to carry out the policies he expressed, engage with his foes perhaps even more than his friends, and basically institute a somewhat cautious brand of good-government technocracy. The other observation is that Obama is more willing to listen than most politicians, and if the case is made he has no problem changing course. If you put those together and look at the above quote, you can synthesize that Obama is perfectly willing to respond to criticism, to go where those who activate their communities and engage the public demand he take them, and respect the power vested in him by the people to act in the interests of the people. It means that tomorrow, Americans of all stripes will have a unique opportunity to petition their government. There is no real excuse for this. The tools are available.
I don't think the current set of policies that Obama has fleshed out are likely to work right now. The economic recovery isn't big enough. The health care reform won't control costs enough. The war policies continue to hold to a myth that Afghanistan needs more troops to maintain security instead of a regional framework. The policies as a whole reflect an incrementalism that is insufficient for the time. The success of this new President depends not on whether or not these steps succeed but how he reacts should they fail. While Obama's greatest supporters tend to recast everything he does as a self-evidently remarkable step forward (which it isn't), his greatest detractors tend to believe that his entire Presidency would be static, and that the outcomes of events would not inform the newly reset policies to react to them. There is no roadmap for the Presidency, but a mindset of honesty and receptiveness is one that has the greatest capacity to involve people in their government again. And at this moment, a return to civics is the very best we can hope for.