Friday, November 7, 2008

A Study in Presidential Contradictions

Barack Obama is famous for lifting whole chunks of his speeches from previous orators. He's especially fond of MLK Jr., FDR, Lincoln.

On the occasion of his Fourth Inaugural, FDR spoke to a nation about to triumph in World War II. The war may have turned in favor of the United States, but FDR himself was exhausted. His speech clocks in at 6:22, one of the shortest inaugural speeches ever. The campaign had been uneventful and the result never in doubt. Out of a total 524 electoral votes, Roosevelt won 432.

Roosevelt speaks with genuine-seeming conviction and honesty. He says, "Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy."

And also: " We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that, 'The only way to have a friend is to be one.'"

These words would be more encouraging if they did not come from the same man who, just three years before, had signed Executive Order 9066, allowing that any US citizen who had at least one-eighth Japanese, German or Italian ancestry could be forcibly removed from their home to a detainment camp.

Indeed, the Constitution was not perfect. Neither was FDR. People will argue that Presidents do what is necessary, but even so, FDR's Order is a massive moral lapse, of a type that our current President (another "war president," and one not known for humanitarian policies) would find distasteful.

In his Grant Park acceptance speech, Obama referred to FDR, saying "When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, [we] saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose."

Like FDR, Obama knew that in giving this speech he was making history. He will make it again on his inauguration day, just like FDR did. To a degree, this is a president's privilege: whether they want it or no (although why wouldn't they?) American presidents are guaranteed a place in world history.

No one expects that a President will be perfect (actually, that's a lie: everyone expects it, but after the inevitable disappointment they pretend that they didn't). After eight years of disappointments, Barack Obama captured our hopes because he was one person in whom we had yet to be disappointed. But that day will come. Despite the high hopes aroused by his campaign, Obama isn't perfect. And I'm a bit afraid, at this point in time, after all the conflicted feelings I've had during this election, of finding out the details of his imperfections, of discovering (at the same time he does) the lapses of which he might be capable.

There's a saying "the bigger they come, the harder they'll fall." It might seem pessimistic, but because of the high hopes Obama has created around himself, he will at some point fall. People will realize that he can't correct atmospheric irregularities, solve the economic crisis, negotiate truces in Iraq and Afghanistan, bring our troops home safely, provide affordable medical care to everyone in the US, lower taxes for the middle class, reduce our national deficit, wean us off foreign oil, find Osama...the list goes on.

But because of who Obama is - our first black president, our first minority president, our first "international" president - part of me can't stand to see him fail. It's almost personal.

No comments: