Obama: The story so far
Barack Obama has long fascinated the Monthly's writers, and last year we found out that he still does the same to the American public. In the wake of his decisive victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, we chart Obama's story from Judith Brett's early 2007 notes on the Democratic hopeful to Noel Pearson's take on his racial politics, Peter Conrad's recent profile and all points in between.
“Obama’s rarest and most refined quality is his capacity for self-questioning. This detachment from the oddity of his own hybrid existence is essential for an autobiographer, and might have been appropriate for one of the philosopher-kings of antiquity; for a president it is more like a handicap. The occupant of the Oval Office is supposed, as George W Bush once gruffly said, to be ‘the decider’. Obama has a different view of the proper presidential mentality.” – Peter Conrad
“In the 2008 campaign, Obama promised change and inspired a devotion and fervour for the hope he offered. Since then, the country – historically centre-right – has shifted even further to the right. According to Gallup, in 2008, 37% of Americans identified or leaned Republican. In mid 2011, this had crept up to 40%. With so much belief, and such stratospheric expectations, Obama was always going to disappoint; the narrative was written for him on election night. It was only ever going to be a question of degree.” – Julia Baird
“Mr President, if the United States fails then the whole cause of freedom fails, John F Kennedy said half a century ago. He meant it must lead by example. Yet we could not help noticing that at the very same time as one bunch of Americans were paying any price and bearing any burden and meeting any hardship to assure the success of liberty, another bunch were behaving as if it were their equally solemn duty to make themselves obscenely rich. And I must say, as a mate, we did wonder why you rewarded them with bailouts and positions in your Cabinet, especially when to no one’s surprise they put the great bulk of the money not to new lending, restructuring mortgages, stalling foreclosures or doing a single thing to help their country or their struggling fellow citizens, but to satisfying the same old scabrous greed.” – Don Watson
“The euphoria has long gone. The Right insists he’s a socialist and soft on terror, and the Left declares him meek, naive and unprincipled. It’s as if the muse has left him. He’ll be lucky to win a second term. Then again, the man’s luck is not the striking thing about Obama. The striking thing is the quality of his mind… All the strands of his experience and judgement had led him to that stage. He had thought his way to the presidency. And there is still reason to hope that he will think his way through it.” – Don Watson
“American patriotism does not celebrate a country that exists or has ever existed. It is a celebration of the idea of America: of possibility, what Barack Obama calls ‘America's promise’. Where we may look upon America as the country of slavery and racial segregation, Americans see a country that overcame these things. Theirs is a sense of self that is forward-looking, oriented towards constant improvement… When Obama spoke of 'change', he was tapping into an American tradition. The project of freedom is a constant one, an 'unending search,' in Johnson's phrase. George Washington called America an 'experiment'. American patriotism is about the hope embodied in that experiment.” – Waleed Aly
“It was like a dream, some nights – America was liberal again. But nothing Obama did for himself, and nothing the media did for him, was half as good for his campaign as the financial crisis. The financial crisis gave him purchase: it proved his case and disproved McCain's… You can spell out the deficiencies of the society, the statistics pointing unmistakably to decline, and they won't question them – but they will say they're optimistic. Probably it was this reflex that led McCain to say the fundamentals of the economy were sound; and when he realised they weren't, to say that he had faith in the American worker. American workers didn't need his faith, they needed help – and things were such that at last some of them were prepared to admit it.” – Don Watson
“Barack Obama's response to black and white disenfranchisement has, so far, been to summon up the twin spectres of evil corporate America and special interests in Washington. His challenge is to find a policy framework that indeed seeks to better perfect the union and to create the Great Society, but to do this he needs to understand the reasons for the failure of previous attempts - the principal lesson being that a government cannot plan and deliver a Great Society. Rather, the sole aim of a government should be to allow, indeed to mandate, individuals to take responsibility for bettering their lives, and to provide them with the maximum opportunity to do so.” – Noel Pearson
“Obama's critics point out that he is short on policy specifics. And people may well not heed the invitation – or not quite yet. But they may. The looming environmental crisis is one which confronts us with our interdependence, not just on the environment but on each other, and so it is likely to propel increasing numbers of people into public action to seek collective solutions to a collective problem. It is becoming blindingly obvious that the West cannot go on as it has done, consuming resources as if there is no tomorrow, year after year, decade after decade, into an open-ended future which is simply more of the same. Popular culture, with its fascination with disasters, knows this. Global business leaders know this. Politics is paralysed.” – Judith Brett
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