Over on the financial times blog there is a bit of a dust up over the speeches of Barak Obama. My experience with this presidential election is that anything that anyone can say is taken by supporters of one candidate as gospel truth, and by the supporters of the other candidate as being proof of the speaker being in league with the devil. I've been accused of just about everything for not being completely enthralled by one or the other.
This is a false decision. Candidates are people, and politicians, and they are flawed people. Even the greatest of leaders have been flawed people who have made flawed decisions. Lincoln's first two years in office may have been the worst first two years of any American President. Certainly he could have picked better generals. Winston Churchill's career is one of recovering from miscalculation. I could go on with the list of great monarchs, presidents and other leaders whose mistakes are large enough to bury lesser reputations.
I sympathize with Gideon Rachman not being inspired by Obama's speeches, but then, he's not the person those speeches are targeted towards. On the American left, there is a great deal of defeatism. People who are better at the big picture than I am say that a great deal of that defeatism and pessimism is warranted, that many of the easy assumptions of American wealth and power are doomed to go away. The life we have known, they tell me, is not to be. There is a good deal of quoting of Gandalf on the subject of Gondor.
So if his point is that the speeches don't challenge, I think that's not correct. Obama is challenging the very dark consensus on the American left about an America in decline, and an American empire that has outlived its usefulness.
Let me offer a different perspective, and that i that mere optimism is, and should be, held in low regard right now. Has there been any more perpetually optimistic administration than that of George W. Bush? Has anyone ever made so many promises about how things are going to get better? Mere faith in one's movement, is not enough.
What I keep listening for is a reason to belive. Not a reason to believe that Obama believes in himself, he very clearly does. But then, I've got a President now who has complete faith in himself, and John McCain has complete faith in himself. But Rachman and Clive Brook aren't arguing over McCain and Bush, versus Obama. There's a reason for that. That reason is that the last 8 years have shown, to almost any neutral observer's sufficient satisfaction, that Bush and Bushism are a failure, that they suck the life out of the United States, and give the world a burning war boom which impoverishes many, while enriching a few.
I've heard, read, and listened to many people who believe that change is possible, and that great changes are possible. But Barak Obama hasn't promised great changes, merely change. He hasn't laid out grand visions. Instead he seems to tell me that the only problem we have is that a few bad decisions were made in Washington. I can believe that the war was a catastrophic mistake. I've believed so ever since I woke up and realized that the United States was going to invade Iraq, even if Saddam crawled on bended knees from Baghdad to Washington DC.
However, there are larger problems than can be solved by stopping the present. And for these, I don't find Obama's speeches moving, because he doesn't seem to tell me how we can do these things. One of the parts of my political awakening was reading Paul Kruman call George W. Bush everything but a liar in the run up to the election of 2000. I turns out that this is because he was forbidden to use that word. George W. Bush was filled with promises that we could do everything. It turns out that his optimism was based on the idea that we would have a fast invasion of Iraq, and that that would be enough "loot," to use a favorite word that many have used, to feed all the promises.
So "Yes we can!" is a challenge, a challenge to many people, like myself, who have been unalterably opposed to the last eight years, and see the signs of decline and failure in America. Books form Jared Diamond, Paul Krugman, and others, have centered around the theme of a great ending. Obama, is making a challenge to a party and a position on the political scale which has predicted failure and disaster from Bush's policies. So far predicting that a Bush policy would be a disaster for everyone but the very rich and Bush himself, has been reasonably accurate.
This means that a more productive argument, I think, would not be over whether Obama is this or that, because we've past the point in the campaign when anyone is going to say anything substantial. The next real glimpse we will get is when the convention arrives, and the final candidate outlines their platform for seeking the Presidency. Until then, it is kabuki theater in the dark.
Instead I would propose that nothing will be done without believing that something can be done. Here is a moment when even Presidents are smaller than the forces that swirl around them. Canute could not hold back the tides, the legend goes, and the next President of the United States can't hold back global warming.
It's time to ignore who will be President for a while, and focus instead on what will be true no matter what. I'm sure that the great minds of the greater world will find that deeper drink than repetitions of "Yes we can."