The text of Obama’s commencement address is here.
Some thoughts on Obama’s speech starting with conspiracy theories and moving from there to Obama’s liberalism and from there to abortion as a test case of my understanding of his core political aims/vision. This post is potentially two or three in one, so I hope I’ve made the transition points clearly.
So conspiracy theories. Just a word of caution. I’m starting here and moving on from there, but it is not my intention to create a kind of smear of anyone who disagrees with Obama as conspiracy theorists. I disagree with Obama on a whole a mess of stuff (though I voted for him), and I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m gonna start with a side-road that will eventually brings us to the main interstate. The view from the side road I think helps illuminate something very important generally missed on the main road. The conspiracies themselves (a product of the side-road view) are not the important point, but rather what they point to though misinterpret it is: namely what they are intuiting but can’t face up to helps make clear where the main road currently is now located.
To wit, The Obama is a ‘scary Mooslim fer’igner radical‘ conspiracy is the inverse of the 9/11 Conspiracy. In the 9/11 Conspiracy, whatever the rational understanding of potential holes in security systems and mal-performing bureaucracies, emotionally the US is believed, at the core, to be invulnerable. To be in a sense omnipotent. Rather than face (emotionally) the realization that it is not the case, that in some very important places and in some crucial measures no one is behind the wheel, then you believe the US government which is so powerful it must be able to do everything committed the attack. Perversely, this is a more comforting thought as it mentally re-justifies one’s emotional adherence to US perfectionism. The failure to stabilize Iraq after the invasion and gets the lights back on and the water running should have taught us the institutional incapacity of our government. But mostly the Arab world continues to hold to the conspiracy view, thinking the US is hyper-dominant (as opposed to technologically advanced but capacity-wise quite slow and stupid) and see it all as purposeful action on the part of the US to divide Iraq. So American conspiracists are not alone in this mov by any means.
And as I said, the Obama is an anti-American radical come to destroy us all is the mirror image of that conspiracy. In the Obama is radical meme, the emotional belief system that can not be questioned is that the US never changes. That there is some core US-ism, “real America” or whatever it gets called, that can’t be shifted. But even agrees some sort of shift is underway, so therefore the only way to make sense of that evidence while retaining such a core ideological commitment is to say some conspiracy from outside has infiltrated our great land, under the guise of a smiling politician, thereby leveraging this shift from within which if the people knew better would never allow. The “real America” remains unchanged.
Rather than face the reality that Obama’s view are actually the new center. When Obama is citing Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Commission and doing everything short of directly quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, then he is the well within the broad stream of post World War II America.
In that sense it is both a continuation of that tradition (“real America”) with its can-do spirit, optimism and notion of generational calls, as well as newly shifted–the center is still the center but has shifted.
The Nieburhian skeptical yet hopeful Liberal Protestantism that so dominated mid-20th century America (with Eisenhower as in some ways its apotheosis) brought the beginning of the inclusion of Catholics into the Protestant-Jewish mainstream. Now Obama references Muslims, Hindus, humanists (by which he meant atheistic humanism) as part of that broad tradition. It’s black, Latino, Asian, as well. It includes the multiculturalism that has dominated the left since the 60s but is in the end integrating. When he cites the Golden Rule, when he references Niebuhr’s understanding of sin as our finitude, arrogance, and limitations, he all but quotes the two pillars of Liberal Christianity (now a broader religious inclusivity): The Fatherhood of God and the brother/sisterhood of humanity. Obama is that tradition with a Niebuhrian skeptical twist (hence Obama’s more reformist, cautious instincts).
What is at one point liberal eventually becomes conservative. What was the (mostly white) alliance of evangelicals-Catholics-Jews that was “liberal” from the 50s on confuses its content (something inherent about those groups) with its own process (a certain progressivity in relation to earlier modes, e.g. the anti-Catholic prejudice of the Protestant-dominated progressive era). It then holds to the content and refuses to recognize its own development. It then launches a broadside against the opposition who argues that the trend of the process continues on, building off the former, all the while failing to recognize that it (the conservatives) used to be liberals. It blames the new liberals for being out of sync with true Americanism, spending so much time and effort drawing lines of whose in and whose out in an attempt to hide its own liberal heritage. At its fringe extremist worst, it manifests as conspiracy theories from John Birchers to today.
Now given all that, Obama is no dummy. In fact he is as shrewd politically as they come. I think he sincerely holds his views (he does actually believe them) but he is a politician and he knows how the game is played. In fact, most of the time he seems to have a much better sense of how the game is to be played, being a couple steps ahead of his opponents (and sometimes his supporters).
In the controversy around abortion, it is not hard for Obama to look fair-minded. Obama is helped in this by useful idiots from his left flank who write not particularly bright commentaries on his speech re: abortion like this one on the front page of the HuffingtonPost.
Obama knows abortion is not going to be overturned. If it Roe v. Wade were somehow nullified, outside an increasingly diminishing white Protestant-evangelical Bible Belt (Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi,etc.) abortion would, if returned to the states, lead to a huge swing towards more liberal abortion laws across the country. It would undo the advances maid by anti-abortion activists in terms of parental consent, no public funding and the like.
Obama knows the conservative movement is dying on the vine. By the stance he is taking he risks nothing and can only gain. He knows the long-term trends on abortion and gay marriage, the so-called hot conflicts of the Cultural Wars. He knows the victory is already won for his side, though some are still fighting on haven’t yet realized the war’s over. He’s a smart politician who does have a very good sense of timing. He’s always in pretty much the right place at the right time for his political career.
I would argue his true political genius lies in where others have seen thirty years of conservative dominance, Obama saw a coalition fracturing and on the way out. He has sensed the new liberal moment. In 2004 with his no red America, no blue America speech at The Dem. Convention he was emphasizing the centrist, fair-minded side of his vision, given that Bush was still popular in many ways and the Congress still in the hands of the Republicans. He was able to appear broad-minded and yet it had enough of an underside of Bush’s division to feel like a “I’ve heard you, I know your alienation, it doesn’t have to be this way” to those on the outside of those years.
In 2008 given the economic scenario, he was able to finally say that conservatism has died, it has fundamentally failed: Iraq, Katrina, the financial implosion. Therefore a new coalition was necessary, one that would include fair-minded conservatives–fair-minded being defined as those willing to work with his democratically-elected agenda–and those as he said in his speech who are fundamentally at odds with him will always stay fundamentally at odds but we can disagree in a more civil manner as well as emphasize the points on which we do agree.
And when I say it’s easy for Obama to speak in that manner I don’t mean he’s a fraud. Again I think that is more or less what he really thinks. Of course he’s a politician so it’s not as if he has his views on something then later thinks about their popularity/political consequence. That calculation is already part of the come to a decision process. Nevertheless it is easy. We are just so accustomed, particularly during the Bush years and the end of the Clinton years to such immature pathetic communicative incompetence and emotionally stunted behavior from our politicians, that Obama looks like some saint. When in reality he is just not a complete quasi-pathological narcissist (Gingrich, Clinton) nor a frat boy ahole (Bush). Obama’s behavior is a fairly baseline and not particularly super advanced form of human relationality. Again given the state of our political class, in comparison it makes him look like some kind of subtle emotional angel or something.
It’s genuine and sincere. It’s also self-serving and ruthelessly Caesarian: divide and conquer. Oldest political trick in the book. As Obama has said from the beginning to anyone with ears to hear, he is after a new coalition, a new governing paradigm, which is why during the campaign he cited Reagan as a model. Not as a model of what policies to enact (great strategy there Hillary!!!) but of how to shift the political field. How to circumscribe a new lodestar around which all political constellations are now defined in relation to. His position on abortion in the speech at Notre Dame is just the logical outworking of that move. There is his position (the new lodestar, which to be fair is still the majority view and has been since Roe v. Wade) and from there series of concentric circles radiating out: those who agree with his position but are willing to admit it is a gut-wrenching choice; those who disagree but who also realize it is a gut-wrenching choice and therefore don’t want to see abortion completely overturned; those who disagree and like to see it overturned but will argue so civily and not impugn their opponents as having evil intent; and finally those in the outer darkness wailing and gnashing their teeth of both complete opposition and total self-righteous condemnation of those with alternate views as simply guided by malicious intent.
The thing that continues to amaze me–though at this point it really shouldn’t–is how low the conservative base continues to set the bar for Obama. They are Obama’s right-flank useful idiots. When Obama more than clears than the hurdle, and it exceeds it and does with his characteristic flair and slightly mischievous yet inviting smile, then he looks like some political super-genius. I’m sorry but the guy can’t lose when his opponents are such morons. Obama’s smart, he’s very smart, but he’s not that smart. If Rush Limbaugh is even partially (like 2% even) right that the media is so over-hyped about potential racism that Obama gets a pass, he might also want to consider the ways in which his analysis (as current standard bearer of the GOP…WTF???) acts as its own affirmative action. If you’re not going to give the person the dignity to assume they have the same (more or less) level of talent and aptitude you have, then you are not going to hold them to the same standard and will invariably hold them to a lower one. And when (quelle surprise!!) “that one” actually isn’t a total nincompoop he rather glides across your low threshold of competence. Interestingly, the only big-name pol on the right to this day who has actually gotten this point is Mike Huckabee.
The only hope for any sane individuals (if there are any) left who oppose Obama’s general stance is that The President is saddled with being a member of the Democratic Party, who can neither find nor fight their way out of a paper bag. As ED rightly points out Pelosi and Reid et. al do not inspire confidence. [Though Br. Kain’s also right that The Republicans, as impossible as it should be, are even worse.]
If you’ve made it thus far (congratulations or perhaps condolences), in conclusion I would be remiss in not warning you with the president’s own words:
and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge
You’ve been warned. Also I actually did write the above this morning in my pajamas, so I’ve completely fulfilled nearly all stereotypes of bloggers** which is only natural given my awareness of all traditions internetical.