Senator Barack Obama rejects the “politics of the past” while borrowing from its phoniest chapters. His promised caravan toward a new Camelot, with Teddy Kennedy bringing up the rear, may generate feelings in Chris Matthews’ leg and cause women to swoon, but over time it is likely to pall and bore.
Obama’s speeches are like cotton candy, sweet but substanceless and dangerous to one’s health if turned into a steady diet. Is he saying nothing? Unfortunately not. Glimpsed through the haze of his sophistical rhetoric is something, and it is tiresomely false, namely, the dogmatic assertion that “hope” and liberalism are synonymous.
His reliance on sentiment and rhetoric rather than reasoning to advance that assertion will not inspire a new politics of bipartisan unity but revive old and bitter resentments. Liberalism, after all, has no monopoly on hope, and the chapters of history to which Obama makes implicit reference — the New Frontier and Great Society — concluded in despair.
While the Democrats won’t stop squealing over him for some time, the larger culture has already begun to mock Obama as a platitudinous lightweight. Imitations of his empty and windy speaking style are popping up left and right.
OF COURSE, WE’RE told that young people can hardly contain their excitement, as parents across the land like Caroline Kennedy and Maria Schwarzenegger listen attentively to the summons of their pro-Obama children. But I wonder about the depth and breadth of youth interest in him over time. In a Jimmy Kimmel/Simpsons/South Park culture of nonstop corrosive but often accurate satire, how long can saccharine words of uplift sustain their interest and credulity?
The recent numbers suggest an uptick in youth interest in voting, but the vast majority of teens still don’t care and dangling another version of AmeriCorps in front of them, as Obama did in his Tuesday speech, probably isn’t going to electrify them. Most teens, I would guess, don’t want to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole of entering yet another piddly, sham government program.
Obama talks about moving beyond the “false promises” of the past, then delivers a handful of new ones, none of which appear any more promising than the claims of the Great Society. He talks about serving “one nation,” then proposes programs that exclusively benefit the special interests of the left.
The government programs he conflates with “hope” would help (if they truly helped anyone at all; always an open question with federal initiatives) a fraction of the population at the expense of the whole. Someone has to pay for Obama’s hope. Who will it be?
Basically it will be the Americans who don’t vote for him. The classic “politics of the past” — tax your opponents, rig up new programs for your constituents — is as much on display in Obama’s presentations as anyone else’s.
IT IS SPECIFICITY that vaporizes his rhetoric, so it is surprising that Hillary, whose one interest is policy wonkery, hasn’t used that dissolvent to cut through it. She spends more time telling people about Obama’s lack of experience and policy knowledge than actually showing it. That just makes her claims appear ad hominem.
In one of the early debates, Obama, moving from the abstract to the concrete, got hopelessly tangled up in an incoherent answer about driver licenses for illegal immigrants. The moment made him look like the rank amateur Hillary claimed.
But the moment passed, the safe platitudes resumed, and all was forgotten. In order to have any chance of winning, Hillary in the next debate has no choice but to draw him into the details of a bruising policy debate in the hope that that exposes his hollowness and kills the rhetorical glow.
I recently re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and its theme of the destruction that accompanies intensely false dreams seems to me applicable to American politics today. Whether it’s Jay Gatsby, JFK, or Obama, beware of seductive dreams and obsessive hope.
To paraphrase Fitzgerald, the problem is not in Obama’s capacity for dreams, but in the “foul dust that floats” in the wake of them.