Remember the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”? It was late in the spring of 2008, and that was one of the ways Barack Obama described his victory in the Democratic primary race. Enormous crowds greeted him wherever he appeared. Comparisons with Abraham Lincoln were already commonplace; comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt would start shortly thereafter. The senator from Illinois was an almost otherworldly figure, a gifted orator who promised genuine transformation. He would end the era of partisan nit-picking and wedge issues, people thought. He would summon the better angels of our nature. It was noble-sounding stuff, and no doubt it was great fun to believe.
It also brought to mind an all-time classic of political hero worship, Norman Mailer’s “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” a 1960 essay in which the novelist described the “existential” deliverance that John F. Kennedy promised to our nation of conformist drones. Mailer hailed JFK as a representative of “that other life, the second American life,” meaning the country of cool people who weren’t machine-minded political-party creatures, who instead inhabited “the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.”
Issues had almost nothing to do with Mailer’s enthusiasm. He didn’t dilate on nuclear deterrence or civil rights or the fate of Quemoy and Matsu. No, Kennedy could be a hero-president because he might “encourage a nation to discover the deepest colors of its character.” Only one concern really troubled Mailer. Might not the American voter, “in a terror of all the creativities” that an existential president would unleash, still prefer “the psychic security of Nixon”?
Mailer’s essay was rediscovered in 2008 and 2009 as journalists sought to understand Barack Obama’s messianic appeal. It was cited by Neal Gabler in the Los Angeles Times, David Remnick in The New Yorker, and Fred Kaplan in Slate. Matt Bai quoted from “Superman” at length in The New York Times Magazine, calling it an “unruly, haunting and somewhat self-indulgent piece” whose ultimate impact would be more literary than political.
Meanwhile, another celebrated novelist made his own venture into politics via the pages of the Washington Post. Michael Chabon was a very different sort of writer than Mailer—and yet almost a half-century later, the spring of American hero worship bubbled in the same way. The issues themselves were again largely irrelevant. What mattered was that voters choose a man who was supposed to be above it all but who also embodied our “better nature.” Barack Obama was a “radiant, humane politician,” Chabon wrote, “who seems not just with his words but with every step he takes, simply by the fact of his running at all, to promise so much for our country, for our future and for the eventual state of our national soul.” Naysayers, in Chabon’s view, were motivated by many of the same fears Mailer had identified back in 1960. They wanted somebody “who [could] win.” They wanted to be “merely secure.” They were afraid to “feel hope,” to dare, to aspire to elect someone truly great. Believing in Obama’s promise, by contrast, was said to be “a revolutionary act.”
I do not mean to single out Michael Chabon, whose novels I have enjoyed for many years. His Washington Post essay was just one installment in a booming genre of political writing: the progressive-ecstatic paean to Obama. Many others contributed to the genre, and many millions more, myself included, agreed with a key part of the thesis—that Barack Obama represented something greater than the average politician. Thanks to the years I spent living in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, I had voted for Obama several times before the 2008 presidential contest. I had encountered him at house parties and community events and expressed the obligatory admiration for his talent. I even—oh, let the shameful disclosure be made!—used to pal around with Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi.
The hopers of 2008 set the bar impossibly high. Their candidate turned out to be a lobbyist-bound, bank-coddling centrist of the usual variety; a man who, it quickly became clear, couldn’t see the big picture after all. He’s still impressive on the stump, I will concede, but he isn’t quite ready to lead this generation to its rendezvous with destiny. So what comes next?
Well, we could follow Norman Mailer’s lead. In 1963, he published an anthology that included “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” and appended to it a postscript in which he seemed to disavow the famous essay. He admitted to its “meretriciousness” and described it as “an act of propaganda” he had deliberately performed to make the candidate “seem exciting . . . [and] the election appear important.” Mailer had set out to persuade the intelligentsia that the 1960 election was a philosophical turning point, and had actually succeeded: his essay made Kennedy cool among this crucial demographic. But now he was sorry for what he had done, apparently because of the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s general lack of imagination.
My guess is that Mailer put such a negative spin on his 1960 essay in order to quash any suspicions that this toughest of literary tough guys had gotten seduced by a politician. Oh no, he seemed to be saying: Mailer hadn’t been fooled by the candidate, it was he who had done the fooling. He was far too smart and cynical to have fallen for that New Frontier stuff. And that’s one way to play the game, I suppose.
But the only honest way for progressives to assess the experience of these past four years is by coming unflinchingly to terms with our own futility and irrelevance. We reached a historical turning point in 2008, all right. We just didn’t make the turn.
I myself was never really convinced that Obama was a heartfelt liberal, but I did believe that the financial crisis was going to force the man’s hand. However much he may have wanted to be another Bill Clinton, cleverly triangulating between enemy camps, economic necessity would compel him to take bolder action. If he wanted to reverse the rising tide of unemployment, he would have to consider something like a modern-day WPA, I reasoned. If he wanted to make sure the banks didn’t steer us into another iceberg, he would have to break them up or install some more serious kind of oversight regime. If he wanted to build a government that worked, he would have to look forthrightly at what had gone wrong in the first place. He would have no choice.
But I was wrong. We were the ones who would have no choice. The only necessities that really mattered to this man-above-the-fray were the usual political ones: the need to get 50 percent plus one, and the need to reassure big money and big pharma and big prestige that they had nothing to fear from him. Using the occasion of Wall Street’s collapse to express some ringing vindication for government was completely off the table. No disaster, it seemed, was big enough to budge Obama’s Democrats from their utter conventionality. Though the tempest rage outside their door, they would cower within, clinging to their polls and their religion, watching and rewatching that old videotape of Clinton’s Golden Hits.
To these holy ends everything else was secondary. Those who subscribed to the Great Man theory of Barack Obama were, ironically, the ones whose voices were most completely ignored. Their support could be taken for granted, and there was no point squandering political capital on them. Indeed, while the banks got their bailouts and the insurance companies got guaranteed profits from here to eternity, liberals have remained a source of irritation for Obama’s team. During his stint as White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs scorned what he called the “professional left,” suggesting its members were more or less demented: “Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it’s crazy.” And then there was this gem from former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, who boldly gave away the store to the opposition: “We must acknowledge that the left’s agenda has not won the support of a majority of Americans—and, based on that recognition, we must steer a more moderate course.”
To return to Norman Mailer for a second: in his essay on Kennedy-as-Superman, the novelist speculated that the everyday life of the country, as represented by the Eisenhower Administration, had strayed from its “dream life” of myth and fantasy—and that JFK might bring the two back together. The same could be said of our own period, only with the poles reversed. Under George W. Bush, the dream life ran away with us. For eight long years, our government engaged in an orgy of magical thinking: tax cuts that paid for themselves, self-regulation on Wall Street, that hearty welcome-as-liberators that our boys in Baghdad were supposed to get. The reality-based community was left to shake its head in wonder.
I confess that I had hoped to see those two aspects of American life come back together in 2008. Obama, after all, was a man who seemed equally adept at juggling myth and reality. But what he brought us instead was a dream of a different stripe: a technocratic, Camelot-style fantasy of expertise, in which everything would work fine so long as it was administered by academically certified professionals.
Could it be that, despite our hopes, Obama was unable to see what was going on in his own country? It sure looks that way now. The nation was turning against professionals and experts and elites at the exact moment Obama was placing them in charge. The new president, working to appease the same parties Clinton had, was doing everything he could to signal continuity and respectability while the rest of the country erupted at the ruling class—which just about everyone, left and right, now agrees was calling the disastrous shots all along.
And yet Obama and his allies trudge onward, in a meritocratic world of their own, taking no notice of what is said and thought outside the palace gates. They hear nothing—except from one another. They explain nothing—except to one another. In some ways, they are as detached and remote as the Bush people at their theocratic worst.
For me this has been the most disheartening realization of all. And not a word of the progressive political conversation—the books, the articles, the editorials and think pieces and blog posts, the tidal wave of tweets and status updates—has made the slightest difference. You and I might talk about plutocracy, or oligarchy, or regulatory capture. But the only ideas that seem to matter to Democratic insiders are the soggy prejudices that happen to be shared by rich people of the nicer sort: prejudices whose content you could guess pretty accurately if you made a Venn diagram of the most popular TED talks, the grants awarded by the Gates Foundation, and the best-selling management titles.
The other side, meanwhile, took bolder steps. Led by rich people of the dickish sort, they addressed the crisis of our time with dazzling creativity—a creativity that, to be fair, often saw them inventing their own facts. No matter. With the populist fire in their bellies, they swept all before them: state legislatures, governorships, and the dwindling handful of old-line moderate Republicans. And all the while, my side clung to that crumbling New Democrat road map from the 1980s, as though it were the only possible route to victory.
The central longing of presidential hero worship is to be led in some great adventure or act of national daring. Mailer’s reverential portrait of Kennedy, for example, dwelled on the candidate’s existential promise, by which the novelist meant (if he meant anything at all) that JFK would gratify our “pioneer lust for the unexpected and the incalculable.”
Our need for the opposite is the reason I will vote to keep Barack Obama in the White House this fall. We have an existential option before us, all right: an amazingly reinvigorated G.O.P. that has launched itself on a passionate crusade for pure capitalism. It offers idealism and energy, it rages against government and regulation . . . and it promises a huge serving of the unexpected and the incalculable.
I mean this not merely in the sense that the theoretical capitalism Republicans love so tenderly is all about “venture” and “risk” and the need to let the failures fail. No, I also mean it in the grander sense: We really have no idea what will happen should they take over the machinery of the state in January 2013.
We know about the tax cuts they will enact, of course, and how those will defund operations in Washington. We can guess pretty accurately how social-insurance programs will be crippled, how federal services will be outsourced, and how oversight agencies will be sabotaged. But the right’s holy war against every form of government involvement in the private sector—the Ayn Rand position that the G.O.P. adopted after the financial crisis—this is something novel, something we haven’t seen for a century or more. They tell us it’s a way to “take back America,” but there is no recent chapter of American history to which we might turn for guidance or comparison.
That’s the path of boldness this year: an amped-up wrecking crew, turned loose on what remains of John Kenneth Galbraith’s new industrial state. Freedom through devastation—it’s something of a utopian program, offered, ironically enough, by the so-called conservatives.
I myself will decline to take that existential leap. We know now that Barack Obama is no Superman. He has been unimaginative and conventional. On his watch, the banks got bigger. The oceans continued to rise. The wars sputtered on. But at least he has been a conscientious administrator of the state. He is not flamboyantly corrupt, in the manner of Tom DeLay and his congressional cohort, or gleefully perverse, in the manner of the Bush Administration’s Department of Labor. And that makes the choice easy for me, despite my disappointment: I will choose the safe over the venturesome, the maintenance crew over the wrecking crew. It doesn’t make for a soaring slogan or an existential journey, but it’s the best we can hope for this time around.