Obama: the honourable candidate

Jack DuVall
10 June 2008

A good friend of mine, who is a local personal acquaintance of Obama's in Chicago, mentioned to me an interesting trait of the Illlinois Senator: his personal thoughtfulness, going further than most politicians in thanking people for favours. This seems to come out of the way he identifies himself, as an everyday human being rather than a VIP. As most Americans who’ve known national political candidates will tell you, this is not common among successful politicians, many of whom seem to have turned into the person they have been outwardly exhibiting for years, or who live double identities, one as a normal person behind closed doors, and another who is constantly performing. And as we know, in a television age and an entertainment culture, the demands of constant performance can seem to warp the sensibilities of the performer.

Obama’s apparent freedom from this syndrome, which is perhaps merely the product of how brief his time has been on the national stage, is auspicious. It seems that when people hear him speak, even though they see that he is a fine orator, they also sense that he is not disingenuous. The history of democratic change proves that you cannot fix a decadent political culture with decadent behaviour. Ends will reflect means.

Another possibly indicative trait of Obama's shown in the recent campaign was his unwillingness to resort to personal attacks on Hillary Clinton. Reportedly, this was quite deliberate. It is said that he wants to restore the primacy of rational dealing among elected actors in American politics, but he knows that won't happen if it's only a matter of style. Members of Congress can't constantly be herded into action by threats, attacks or deception by a president, without diminishing democracy itself. The best way to prod Congress is to arouse or organise citizens who, instead of merely voting every two or four years, put ongoing pressure on government themselves.

Obama has been quite explicit about wanting to build the capacity to mobilize very large numbers of people to act within and perhaps also outside the system in order to support his agenda. This doesn't necessarily include marching on Washington or anything quite so theatrical, but if Obama is successful in finding new ways for people to make their voices heard and to bring pressure to bear on lawmakers, he may then be able to do what he has also said he wants to do, and that is to supplant the heavy influence of “special interests” with direct popular interests. It may be that all the giant rallies, the internet-based networking, and the methodical organising in caucus states have not only been developed by the Obama campaign for the purpose of getting him elected.

There are precedents for such pervasive organising in partisan American politics. As recently as the presidential election of 1960, both the Democrats and Republicans had the local capacity to bring literature on foot to the front door of any suburban and city home in America, and big-city political machines had their fingers on the daily pulse of life in the neighborhoods. These techniques became secondary, after the advent of incessant political television advertising in campaigns, and the iron grip on campaign strategies by consultants who profit from the making and booking of that advertising.

If Obama is trying to bring back the capacity of leaders to organize people instead of merely seduce them with imagery, we shouldn't underestimate the willingness of the public to welcome that. There are very few voters in America who do not feel that they've been seriously manipulated by both parties. If this revival of rational discourse and direct organising should occur, no small revolution would occur in American politics.

There is a poster of Lincoln on the wall of Obama’s office. It includes a quote of Lincoln that says in part that the trial through which we pass “will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” How can a president be honourable? “Convince the people” that “right makes might” – and change the methods of leadership, so that reason, rather than “drugging the public mind,” is the basis of obtaining the people’s consent. That’s what Lincoln said, and it may be what Obama believes.

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