I’d like, briefly, to propose a way to think about President Obama. I would first like to summarize or reaffirm (insist upon?) the argument I have made so far regarding Obama’s rise and the wild, cult-like following he has acquired. In my view, Obama is a transcendent figure, a political celebrity/demi-god, whose quasi-divinity, for his believers (right now commanding a sizable majority of American public opinion), consists in his completion of the public ritual of scapegoating George Bush. Whatever the scapegoated Bush is, Obama is the “other”; what Bush is not, Obama incarnates: from biography, to verbal facility, to manners, to associates, and, of course, race, to mention just a few. Nobody speaks about Obama without an explicit or implicit gesture toward Bush (“we finally have a President who…”)
Such an analysis sufficed (for me at least) to understand Obama’s rise; but it is just a preliminary analysis for engaging his mode of governance. I have also suggested that Obama is aware of his transcendence and has actively cultivated it; which also means that he is aware of the need to preserve, harvest and carefully deploy this transcendence. This awareness, I believe, accounts for the studiousness with which he has distanced himself from the more rabid elements of the Left which facilitated his rise, and made some overtures to conservative figures. Still, all this is just sparring–the bell for the first round has just rung.
The way in which some of Obama’s policies, rhetoric and appointments appear to be Bush-lite has already captured the attention of some our leading comedians. I don’t share the optimism of “center-right” people, though, that Obama recognizes the success of many of Bush’s (especially national security) policies and will simply continue them in a more rhetorically “effective” form. I think the decisions he has been making are more telling of the kind of moves a well-practiced transnational progressive makes to transform the remaining liberal elements of our order into a bureaucratic, quasi-feudal order based on international law. The transnational progressivists are minimalists and in their own way are better anthropologists than the right. If you want to shift more power in society to unaccountable bureaucracies, the judiciary and, more specifically, transnational bureaucracies and legal forums governed by postmodern international law (the traveling war-crimes and human rights tribunals comprised of Western media, lefitst lawyers, celebrities, academics and discarded political leaders), you cannot try to install such an order all at one time. You must pay token homage to the reality in front of you, and find a margin of difference between that reality and the reality that would be revealed under the proper “lighting,” i.e., under the gaze of the Human Rights World Picture. The American occupation of Iraq and the government we have nutured there can now, for example, be found to be tied to all kinds of legitimating international forms, forms we should adhere to more obediently; at the same time, those very forms will “tell” us when we need to leave Iraq, and will afterward “tell” us to do or not do many other things as well. That is, one works with events, events which make visible the boundary line between nationalistic, bourgeois, imperialistic, militaristic, racist, etc., motives and actions, and the legitimating frame which now christian those actions anew by attaching them to a new set of motives; or, alternatively, allow for penance to be done for those actions and reparations to be paid and reforms introduced and supervised. And you choose events where popular opinion is already on your side, putting to work figures (“dissidents”) of the ancien regime who are willing play along. Those transitional figures can then be discarded.
So, that’s my hypothesis: Obama will husband his transcendence by representing himself as the connecting link between American interests and the emerging international order and realities, choosing to focus on those acts and deeds that can simultaneously improve America’s “image” before the “world” and make the world’s judgment seem less intimidating and more inevitable to Americans. All the mythic events of the Bush years will thereby be cancelled out and replaced by new myths. So, here’s what would falsify the hypothesis:
1) As I have suggested before, one way in which Obama could genuinely risk his transcendence and become a real chief executive would be to evince an umistakable willingness to use military force in a situation involving American interests alone, at odds with international opinion and even agreements, and requiring “follow through” past the original phase of popularity or at least understanding.
2) A second way involves the domestic situation. An obvious, but I think relatively easy move for Obama to make would be to defy Congressional Democrats on the “stimulus” package–that is, to rebuke them and send them back to the drawing board to compose a less pork-ridden, more austere bill clearly aimed at the most urgent business. More important, though, would be a recognition that one essential element of lifting ourselves out of whatever we are sinking into is the generation, rapidly, of new sources of wealth; and that the most readily available source lies in energy–while new forms of energy production will simultaneously have very healthy effects upon our relation to the rest of the world. There are really only two quick ways of dramatically increasing energy production and changing energy markets: oil drilling in previously forbidden (for environmentalist reasons) and the construction of nuclear power plants. Both would activate the defense of long standing taboos among Obama’s main constituencies. Promoting, unambiguously, a move in this direction would be the second way Obama could spend his transcendence is such a way as to transitioning into becoming a genuine Chief Executive.