The Obama myth
I hit Mitt Romney pretty hard last week. I mean, I meant it, but I thought it was about time to talk a little about Barack Obama.
David Foster Wallace told this great story once in a commencement speech to an American university in 2005 about an atheist and a Christian debating the existence of God in a bar.
The atheist says to the Christian that he has reason not to believe in God, because this one time he was caught in a blizzard and it was 50 below freezing and he got down on his knees and prayed to the heavens for his life.
"Well then you must believe now," the religious man says. "After all, here you are, alive."
The atheist rolls his eyes. "No, man, it was just a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
I think this story sums American politics up pretty clearly at the moment. There's two divergent takes on everything.
The release of last week's employment figures for July was either a blow to the middle class, or further proof that Obama has continually added jobs to the economy.
There's no easy truth about Barack Obama. There's no easy truth about Mitt Romney, either.
A few people pointed out in response to my recent post that Mitt Romney is a qualified and distinguished man with a storied career in business. The strange thing is, you were arguing against me, but I agree with much of your thoughts.
What you forget is, can't Romney be both a successful American person and a lousy political campaigner?
Political discourse allows for no grey area. You're either pro-candidate A, or you're out in the streets calling for his head and espousing the heroic qualities of candidate B.
I think that by design of my birthplace I am biased toward Obama. I've talked about this before, but New Zealand politics plays out (mostly) several degrees to the left of America.
My beloved father, of whom I am endlessly fond and who also has been known to scrap it out in the comments section here under a nom-de-plume that I will not out (hi Dad!) is a way, way back, dyed-in-the-wool National supporter.
But even he finds Romney a little hard to swallow.
I think if the world got to vote in the American elections, New Zealand would go 3-1 for Obama. Romney, as it stands, places too much stock in conservative moral politics, is too much of a chest-beating, military hawk, and too removed from the economic fairness we generally cherish as a country to ever be popular in New Zealand.
Of course, we don't really count. I just think American elections are fascinating, and think that you do too, for the most part.
I'm of the ideal Obama! age. I was in my early 20s when I first started paying attention to him. I got swept up in the energy of 2008: the oratory... the music videos... the Will.I.Am hologram... He spoke and moved unlike any other political leader I'd seen, with an intellect that could speak to both young and old minds alike.
But despite this national and demographic disposition that pushes me toward still supporting Obama, November 2012 feels pretty hollow when compared against the '08 juggernaut.
It's a mixed bag.
The Guantanamo Bay prison remains open. Torture (in America's name) has ended, but the Obama administration's programme of drone use and assassination puts it to the right of Bush II on national security. There's the unprecedented level of prosecutions being levelled against government whistleblowers, while the government seems to have hypocritically leaked information at will, without punishment, which was politically flattering.
But still, I mark Obama up on pushing America toward smaller, targeted military action over the broad, unilateral actions of the sort Bush engineered in Iraq and Afghanistan. I give him points for nailing Bin Laden, even if it did come at the expense of international sovereignty.
The economy still sucks. There are two strains of thought on that: either a) Bush started it, give Obama a break or b) he's made it worse.
It has been four years plus since the global financial crisis and American recession and Obama has had many chances to make it better than it is. But most evidence points to the very stimulus package he's decried for having stopped the bleeding at least, and probably not being large enough to cause any real bounceback.
Obama is then hampered in seeking any effectual solution to national economic woe, or even a good compromise, by the very partisan hackery he promised that he was going to end. He's protected the Bush-era tax cuts, but extended unemployment access for the needed.
There're Obama's much-touted healthcare and financial oversight reforms, but as prizes for his administration to me these look like the pecked-over carcass the old fisherman brings back to shore in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. They're bloated and confusing, to boot. But again, the country is caught between adoring them and deploring them on principle, without assessing the reality.
Obama has dropped the ball on any real environmental reform, but made some small improvements (green building standards, increased demands on American fuel efficiency).
He has been an impeccable diplomat. He's restored America's reputation at the UN, and stressed multilateral negotiation in the face of global dilemma. He is also socially progressive in a way - and mark my words on this - that will put him on the right side of history with his endorsement of gay marriage and ending "don't ask don't tell".
He's succeeded, and he's failed. But why can't this be the reasonable discussion? Why does it have to be "he's a success" or "he's a failure"?
Obama hasn't been a runaway hit, and he hasn't been the second coming of socialism in America.
Romney isn't a faultless business manager and politician, and he's not the antichrist that wants poor people to starve in the streets.
Circa 2012, I'm still more characteristically disposed to support Obama than Romney. But the important difference is, and why it seems hollow to think about this election in comparison to 2008, is that the insurgent outsider of 2008 is just another politician now.
Go and watch that "Yes We Can" video clip. The link is here.
It dates as well as any other meme from four years ago (i.e. badly).
The really crushing blow of the Obama-era in American politics is not the product of his work in office - which I'd give him about a B/B- for, but the end of the false hope of the underdog candidate and great man riding in to save the government and showing everybody that politics isn't actually one giant fool's errand.
Maybe early in every person's 20s they need to get behind one candidate wholeheartedly and put real hope for actual change behind them only to have their hopes dashed.
Politics in America is more divided now than it was four years ago. Obama might not have been the one to make the culture of politics worse, but he has not done anything to make it better.