LDVUSA: Dreams and Symbols – but what’s next?

There’s a time and place for the tiredest platitudes, as we feel the hand of history on Obama’s shoulder.

Human beings have a soft spot for symbolism. Modern societies make much of round-numbered anniversaries, as opportunities to focus on the past and look to the future. It helps us make sense of our world, and to create narratives that render infinitely complex human histories comprehensible. Today, we are doing something slightly different. All around the world, people are stopping to note the inauguration of Barack H. Obama as America’s next President. Already, everyone is keen to proclaim Obama’s presidency as ‘historic’ – a curious feat of modern jargon, given that it still lies in the future. But as cheap and repetitive as it is, such a belief has strong currency in world politics.

Power is imagined – it is based on presumption and consent. Obama has power because people at home and abroad imagine him to have it, and thus respond to his wishes with action. In such circumstances, this incredible popularity gives a strong hand to begin his administration. For today, the President-Elect can be a fictional hero – like The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet – a vessel for everyone’s hopes, dreams and wishes. As someone who has long known the power of oratory, spectacle and theatre, Obama has been astute in maximizing this excitement. This was the secret of much of his success in the ‘change’ election we saw conclude last November.

Governing, however, will be different. The blank slate on which Americans have imagined their dreams will become messy and busy with day-to-day decisions of incumbency and governance. Obama’s popularity will, at some point, slide. Power is disposable, as well as imagined. The key, I would suggest, is for him to make sure that he uses it to achieve what he wants to. Tony Blair’s biggest mistake was surely his timidity after his 1997 triumph, when he failed to convert public goodwill into any sort of meaningful reform. In the words of another platitude – you can’t please all the people all the time. Pursuing endless public adulation is merely a recipe for stagnation and crippling impotence. The harder a leader tries to hold onto power, the more surely it drains away. Using it up is the only way to stand a chance of holding onto any.

Today, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first African American President of the United States. Yesterday was Martin Luther King day in America. A public holiday, it commemorates the civil rights leader who once stood on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln memorial and told an assembled throng he had “a dream” of racial discrimination ending. The ghosts of both Martin Luther King jr. and Abraham Lincoln – whose birth bi-centennial celebrations kick-off next month – will be invoked endlessly in TV commentary, news reports and hackneyed editorials (including this one). Yet for all the vacuousness and reptition, Obama’s win has changed America’s domestic perception of itself. This year’s Martin Luther King holiday was the first in American history where a majority of black citizens believed that MLK’s dream had been fulfilled – two thirds now do, doubled from the same day in 2008.

Perhaps there should be a place for platitudes after all. Obama’s success has already empowered other American citizens, who may now see more opportunities to fulfill their ambitions, and settle less for restrictions in opportunities before them. That’s a concrete result of his success. If he is to create any more, however, he will have to abandon the hope of holding onto his current popularity. There’s a natural inflation in such adulation. In order to sustain this approval, Obama will need to use the power he has to manufacture successes, not to hold onto the reputation he has.

This presidency has every chance to be historic, but it cannot live up to the disparate expectations placed on it. If he actually wants to achieve something historic, the new President will have to be clear-sighted and determined, in spite of the fact some sections of his support will fade away. Blank slates are powerful symbols; but as the incumbent of a powerful office, Obama should remember that power is an expendable currency, and he should use it to achieve tangible outcomes, not to defend and preserve approval ratings.

For today, symbolism and new dreams will suffice. But as Americans wake up from inauguration party hangovers on Tuesday, the real work begins. Dreams and symbols, then, will be insufficient. I’m sure Obama knows that. It will be interesting to see, in the words of Jed Bartlet, “what’s next?”

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