Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amid all the pomp and circumstance, we should reflect on why we elected this man

Basking in Obamaraville

he Obama we see in the opening hours of this administration is a triumphant, poised and confident one. This is billed as a moment of great change, and thus a certain national sense of bravery, of newness, of pride and adventure swells - and thank goodness for it, because in this long gray winter of our discontent, this spirit may be the one thing we have going for us.

Consider for a moment why we elected Barack Obama.

The near-automatic answer would be, "Because he was the best qualified."

Of course, that isn't true, not nearly so. In many ways he may have been the least qualified of major candidates, unless you count Rudy Giuliani, which you shouldn't. Obama was elected just once to national office, after failing once, and of course does not finish his first term as a junior senator. His own vice president possesses many times more political credentials than he, as did his final opponent.

Then why? Because of his color? I'm not buying that.

He's not the "safest" choice, or even the most entertaining - he's still on the first wife with well-adjusted kids; he doesn't comically jumble sentences and hardly touches booze. Unlike the last couple of presidents, it's almost impossible to draw a really funny cartoon with this guy.

Because he's brilliant? Based on the two previous elections, I'd guess not. Bill Bradley would have been president, among others, if we voted for IQ.

Because he's hip? Oh maybe a bit. When have we had a chance to elect a president who knows how to work a Zune and a BlackBerry, who has a collection of Spider Man comics, who plans to install a hoops court at the White House, who has read every Harry Potter book, who listens to the The Fugees, who cooks a mean bowl of chili, and who once applied for (and was rejected) to appear in a pin-up calendar for college chicks?

That's not really it, though. We are a charm-able people, but not friviolous.

Is it his background? Doubt it. Obama is the first president I can recall who is unabashedly "urban." We have elected small-town royalty, cowboys, people who claim home to be ranches or plantations or woodsy/beachy compounds where clearing of brush photo ops are a must. Maybe it is America that is changing in that regard as people drift from rural to urban instead of the other way around, but that's not the deciding factor. (Or Sarah Palin better hope not, anyway.)

We for darn sure didn't elect him for being a lawyer. We seem to have more of an affliction for jet pilots, real or posed.

We didn't even elect him for oratory, though he is a refreshingly exceptional speaker. He didn't stray too far from the script in the campaign, upbeat, but there wasn't anything quite Gettysburg Address-y in there.

So why this specimen? What did he have that a cadre of other accomplished and experienced political leaders couldn't offer?

Change? Ah, maybe so, but Obama comes out of a Congress mired in the same issues as the outgoing administration, just as his opponent did. There were candidates who were more Beltway "outsider" than he.

I have to believe it was something harder to define that people saw in Obama. And no two people may have seen it exactly the same way.

There is a vitalty and charisma there. A straight-spokenness, when he tells us he will draw down troops and end torture of U.S. prisoners and double investment in renewable energy and work in bipartisal manner. We've heard political promises before, but something about this man leads us to actually believe he will try to keep them.

In my gut though, I don't think it is change we voted for. It occurs to me that it may be just the opposite.

I think what many see in Obama is a return to the past - to the time when another relative newcomer inspired with an inaugural address: "And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

We've elected a civil rights leader and community organizer, after all. A professional inspirer. Because we think maybe America can again be that America.

The America that doesn't attack countries that don't attack us. The America that doesn't torture, doesn't spy on its own people. The one that doesn't settle for being average in education, four days a week. The that America believes in the rule of law, and systems and balances, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The American democracy that is the beacon for the world. The America that is not a deadbeat debtor nation. The America that is respected. The America that helps its own and others in time of disaster, not just bail out giant irresponsible corporations. Bush was not the cause of our failures here, he was the effect.

I get the feeling that we don't so much want change - we want to return to those truths. Of all the candidates, a majority of those who voted saw Barack Obama as the one person who might inspire us to begin getting back there.

Of course, he can't. At least he can't do it alone. No man or woman could.

In everything we have lost, we let it to be taken. We accepted it all, we settled, we gave ground a piece at a time, did little to stop it.

If we want America back again, the America that we long for it to be, it won't be Barack Obama, or even the entire government, that does it for us. We will do it for ourselves; or we won't do it at all. That will be our test.

It won't be done with politics, or war, or ceremonies.

It will be done starting in our own communities. Building, educating, helping, caring for the less fortunate, rebuilding the economy one job at a time. Speaking our minds, being informed and engaged at the local level as well as the national one. By demanding that our leaders act with the moral strength that defined the nation to begin with, and holding their feet to the fire when they let us down. By accepting no second-rate leadership - in a town, school, church, state or White House.

For the first time in a long time, this man has given us some enthusiasm, and we sorely needed it. It is now up to us, more than it is up to him, what we do with it.