Barack Obama's rejection of public campaign financing and his complex communication about his plan for Iraq have been lampooned on late-night shows, discussed at Sunday-morning roundtables, and ridiculed by right-wing shock jocks as yet another "flip flop" by a Democratic hopeful. But perhaps nowhere have these issues been hotter topics than in alternative media, from Laura Flanders' GRITtv to the ever pugnacious AlterNet.org, to youth civic blogs like Future Majority, where community organizer Biko Baker writes, "This week Obama has proven that he won't be right (no pun intended) on every issue. In fact after this week it's becoming clear that he is going to be wrong a lot more than we would like him to be."
The public reaction has got me thinking about the inevitable tarnishing of Obama's golden image. His profound charisma, his gift for public speaking, and his inspiring biography have led a country of lefty voters, especially the young, to idolize him. Obama maintained this angelic persona through the primaries, but sooner or later, the halo is going to fall. In anticipation of that moment -- or many moments, as they case may be -- I hope that Democratic voters, especially the young, can shift the tenor of their support for Obama. After all, he is not a god; he is just a man.
The numbers show how truly mesmerizing Obama's campaign has been for young voters. In the primaries, 6.5 million people under the age of 30 voted, nearly double the turnout in 2000, according to figures compiled by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. From San Francisco to San Antonio, Minneapolis to Memphis, Obama got 60 percent of the youth vote, winning 32 of the 40 states. And young voters didn't just show up in record numbers to the polls, they are also volunteering, donating, and discussing this election in unprecedented numbers. Obama's candidacy has inspired something of a civic awakening among the numbed-out and prematurely cynical college crowd.
The long-term goal, however, should not be just to jolt America's youth awake with an injection of politics (masquerading as celebrity. It should be to stir young voters to recognize the significance of civic engagement and take the first step to making it a lifetime affair. It should be to move young voters to invest in Obama's political philosophies, the antecedent to his policies, and really reflect on the meaning of leadership, citizenship, and nationhood. It should be to convince them that the American dream -- which Obama represents so romantically -- is not an immaculate conception but an endangered product of just economic and immigration policies and institutional enlightenment.
Obama speaks and emotes on par with some of this country's, even this world's, most gifted orators. For this, I am grateful. It feels amazing to shed some genuine tears over a political speech, to have some sense of what my parents meant when they talked about being personally invested in JFK's ideas, to actually believe in someone who has a flag waving behind them. When Obama smiles, it's as if a long-dimmed light has been fiercely illuminated.
But there is a danger in all this charisma. It distracts us from the reality, which is that Obama is a young politician, full of potential but also destined to make mistakes. He is human and, therefore, bound to fail at some of what he is so bravely setting out to do. We, a generation pumped full of self-esteem education, are uncomfortable with failure. Too often we want our mentors, our parents, and, I fear, our political leaders, airbrushed into perfection. Or on the other extreme, we revel in the demise of decent people. Reality television has primed us for 24-hour schadenfreude.
Let's not let Obama be our deity or our Britney Spears. Let's not hold him up to unrealistic standards, setting ourselves up for inevitable disillusion. And let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater when he shows his weaknesses. The loss is far too great to have an all-or-nothing attitude toward the man who would be king. It's not just his presidency that is in danger but our own sustainable civic involvement.
We need to push Obama to live up to his campaign promises and question him when his rhetoric or proposed policy seems to diverge from his purported philosophy on political leadership and social change. A great example is the fierce response from feminist bloggers who followed Obama's recent wishy-washiness on the right to choose. The man who snagged NARAL Pro-Choice America's endorsement before the primary season even ended called into question just how committed he would be to promoting reproductive justice when he told reporters that a pregnant woman's "mental distress" shouldn't be an adequate exception to bans against late-term abortions. When challenged, he clarified his position: "My only point is that in an area like partial-birth abortion … exception can be defined rigorously. … It can be defined through physical health. It can be defined by serious clinical mental-health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue." This kind of pressure from his supporters pushes Obama to be a better, clearer leader and inspires citizens to be more involved, proactive voters.
A critical lens, not rose-colored glasses, will best serve us in the coming months of this presidential campaign. If we see Obama as a star, then we will be forced to watch him fall from such great heights and experience the darkness afterward. If we see him as a promising leader -- full of wisdom, charisma, and vulnerable humanity -- then we can walk the long, bumpy road ahead. As Biko Baker puts it, "As young progressives we really just need Obama to be accountable to us most of the time and the rest of time it's going to be up to us to push back and fight with him. Let's be honest, it's going to be our vote that gets him in the office."
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