GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 11, 2008

Barack Obama, the Greatest President Ever!

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:32 pm

I thought I’d give this post-election commentary game another spin.  Two things occurred to me:  first, that Barack Obama, for a while at least, will be able to do pretty much whatever he wants (and if what he does is well received, that “while” will become quite a while) and we have no idea what he wants to do (that’s all one thing); second, do we really have comprehensive knowledge of the laws of scapegoating?  Maybe sometimes scapegoating really works–it must have, after all, to become such a longstanding human practice.  Maybe sometimes the mimetic tensions are genuinely “discharged,” leading to a period of significantly reduced tensions.  This wouldn’t make scapegoating any more just or reasonable–the fact that it works sometimes does not mean we could know in advance when it will work, or what the collateral damage will be.  But it would be a fact that we would have to acknowledge as theorists seeking the truth. 

Obama, then, in this new discharged environment, in which he has made a wide range of inconsistent, likely insincere, but never too insistently put forward promises, is pretty much free to ignore his most fervent supporters–until someone undermines his transcendence, what we might call his victimary halo, he is fairly invulnerable.  And those who paved the way for his transcendence through their relentless scapegoating of Bush are not well positioned to trip him up–they have already gotten their hands dirty, both as unscrupulous partisan hitmen and as slavish supporters.  Obama will have to wager his transcendence on something, and the odds are he will do so on a leftist “surge” in both doemstic and foreign policy–a new New Deal at home, and transnational pacificsm abroad.  But what if he is independent enough from any particular commitments or interest group to actually observe the effects of his first steps in the direction of advancing such policies?  How will this proud man, whose resentments are not that easy to read, respond to a rebuff from Ahmadinejad, Chavez–or, for that matter, Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy?  How will he deal with leftist activists who try to drag him down to their level by trying to cash in on his promises, interfering with his basking in the historical moment?  Obama’s sleazy crack at his first post-election press conference about Nancy Reagan’s “seances” reminded anyone who was paying attention of what was already clear–that Obama’s entire political idiom is a hybrid of the leftist activist group and faculty lounge.  It is not unreasonable to imagine that he might realize fairly quickly how exhausted and inadequate that idiom is to his purposes.

In a sense, some of the immediate decisions confronting Obama are very favorable towards any attempt to distance himself from the Left, should he wish to do so.  Reversing his position on Iraq, for example, should be relatively cost-free:  casualties are way down and stability and security immeasurably improved and likely to stay that way contingent only upon a continuance of present policies.  The financial crisis gives him cover to reverse himself on tax increases for the “rich.”  Taking a more skeptical stance on the constantly expanding bailout of what is coming to look like the entire American economy would allow him to pivot against both the Bush Adminstration’s haste to help rich Wall Street investors and the Democratic Congress’s lust to nationalize and distribute pork.  Everyone knows he has inherited the crisis, so the public will be patient, and the inevitable return to economic growth will redound to his credit.  The media is already preparing the narrative of Obama the rescuer, “like” Lincoln and FDR.

In the end, of course, Obama will have to prove himself by making difficult and unpopular positions–only when he does this will these favorable conditions become favorable conditions.  He will have to block some domestic policy proposal with overwhelming Democratic support; and, more important, he will have to initiate and see through to the end some application of American military power for some unequivocal end, against some enemy.  The latter imperative is, of course, both more difficult and more important.  But if Obama, offended by (say) an Iranian insult, shocked by some display of European cynicism in that same instance, and angered by his erstwhile domestic allies’ willingness to tie his hands in the midst of a decision he is coming to realize is more complex than he had realized–if, in such a situation, his sense of his own “destiny” overrides the Leftist commonplaces upon which he has been suckled, and as a consequence he finds himself a new set of allies willing, in the name of national security, to forget previous affiliations and advise and support him unconditionally in some action that will irrevocably narrow his future options and redefine his political identity; well, we might then have the makings of a remarkable Presidency.

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