As Inauguration Day approaches, people around here seem to be buffeted by conflicting sentiments. There are absolutely no regrets about the impending departure of George W. Bush, of course. Even as a figure of fun, Dubya seems to be shrinking in size from the absurd to the merely pathetic, like the inflated standup punching toy in his image that someone gave us as a gag gift a few Christmases back. As a villain, he also seems to have deflated, as it appears increasingly likely that the crimes committed in his name were conceived and carried out by others, with the putative Commander-in-Chief often out of the loop while the big boys made policy.
The symbolic politics of the election of Barack Obama as the first U.S. president of African descent can’t be denied. It will be harder and harder to use skin color or ancestry as an excuse for denying access to important positions in American society. The significance of this change for those of us in the generation that has spent most of our adult lives fighting racism in America can’t be overemphasized—even mentioning its impact in conversation is an easy way to bring tears to the eyes of both black people and white people, men and women over 60 who remember well when things were different.
Which is not to say that racism is dead, of course. The recent shooting in cold blood of Oscar Grant in the BART station cannot be viewed without a probable penumbra of racial prejudice, conscious or unconscious, attributable to the policeman who shot Grant in the back as he was prone on the ground. Whether it was a deliberate act or a stupid mistake made by a poorly trained fellow with a gun, “accidents” like this happen too frequently when people of color are involved. Now that the usually careful Alameda County DA has finally filed murder charges it seems likely that both the shooter and BART authorities undervalued Grant’s life, at best. It seems highly unlikely that the same “mistake” would have been made if the young man on the ground been white. Racism lives, even if dormant.
And for those of us who would like our leaders to be smart and articulate and thoughtful and admirable, Obama is an amazing improvement over the last several presidents. Both Bushes were unspeakable, and while Bill Clinton was smart, he was often not admirable. Lyndon Johnson left much to be desired, and though Jimmy Carter has shown himself in later years to be more than admirable, his single term did not demonstrate outstanding intelligence.
When G.W. B. was elected, pundits said it was because he was the person most voters would like to go out with for a few beers. Obama is not that guy—he’s more likely to be the person voters might like to sit down at the dinner table with, at least those voters who still sit down to dinner to talk, perhaps a vanishing breed. For those of us who appreciate good writing and speaking, he seems downright miraculous, someone who can craft his own ideas into intelligible and even graceful prose both in print and on the podium.
But—there are a number of “buts” in the air by now. Obama’s moves around the failing economy are being widely criticized by everyone from academic economists to Congressional liberals. Hiring the same tired team that began the disastrous deregulation under Clinton, from the sexist Larry Summers up and down the ladder, looks like a real mistake to many. Left pundits—e.g. Bob Scheer on Wednesday—are outraged and alarmed in print about this group of choices, as they should be— that’s their job.
The talking-head academics—DeLong, Krugman, Stiglitz—say that Obama and friends should be asking Congress for much more pump-priming spending. But it’s possible to view his initial relatively modest request for money as a Br’er Rabbit tactic (“Oh please don’t throw me in that briar patch!”) calculated to get Congress to force him to spend more even as he pretends to be cautious.
The reviewers are still out on his other appointments, many of whom seem to be the political equivalent of comfort food: experienced players, not too ideological, won’t scare anyone. Leon Panetta looks very good to those of us who have been horrified by the excesses propagated in the name of Homeland Security. He’s an expert in organizational behavior, not likely to be hornswoggled by the sort of toxic intelligence insider Dianne Feinstein might have preferred to see in the job.
Some of the non-politicos do have something not to like if you know the field. The Secretary of Energy nominee for example, at work most recently in Berkeley, is seen by local environmentalists as a promoter of biofuel solutions which could put conservation and food production at risk. Time and his specific policy proposals will tell the tale.
Starting long about Wednesday, those of us who supported Obama, both in the press and outside it, will have to start being on our toes. It will be our job to lean on him as hard as we can, in order to make him—no, in order to help him—do the right thing. It’s always been that way, but it promises to be a somewhat easier job with Obama than it was with presidents past.
Between now and Wednesday, however, I intend to relax and savor the moment. I’m going to fly my flag again, for only the second time in almost a half-century of householding, and maybe even sip a bit of champagne. I’ve been invited to three parties on Inauguration Day, and I mean to put on my dancing shoes and go to all of them, with bells on. And don’t you love those little girls?