The President as Metaphor

(Flickr/Adam Jones)

Character is destiny, said the Greek philosopher Heraclites—a romantic, maybe, since the implication is that sooner or later the good guy wins. It’s probably a character flaw on my part, indicative of smugness, to assume this maxim will be tested tomorrow on Election Day in terms of both the two presidential candidates running and the country itself. Such an assumption implies that the good guy’s identity is evident. This may not be the first time in our lives when a national election is about nothing less than the meaning of America. More than 1968 or 1932, however, the views and values of both sides are so distinctly different that what’s unsettling isn’t each side believing the other represents the forces of darkness and that the future of the country is at stake; everybody believes these things during a heated campaign. What’s unsettling is that, for once, these things may be true. This is what makes tomorrow such a dreadful crossroads and what makes after tomorrow such an inevitably daunting path. 

Barack Obama was never bound to live up to his metaphor. It’s the nature of metaphors and it’s the nature of politics that political metaphors are lived down to, not up to. For his supporters, Obama has failed to be, in the most positive sense, the very transformational figure that his opponents accuse him of being in the most negative sense. It’s absurd to try to separate Obama from his historical meaning. It’s absurd to try to separate him from the central metaphor of his presidency. By the uncanny alignment of temperament, talent, and opportunity that was his election in 2008, Obama personifies the country’s contradictions, including its failure to come to grips with its original sin as far back as 1776 (when an antislavery clause written by slaveholder Thomas Jefferson was excised from the Declaration of Independence) and an aspiration as endless as it has been bloody to redeem that failure (as Abraham Lincoln called for in his second inaugural address, the most revolutionary ever given by a president). Our response to the Obama presidency has been a national psychotic break. It’s reflected in our bipolar perception that he’s at once rigid and vacillating, naïve and expedient, ubiquitous and remote, a partisan and a pushover, a subversive and a sellout—the mix-tape president of a mix-tape country assembled from bits of music that everyone heard and loved and sang in common until all we could hear instead were the other bits of the tape that we ignored the first time because they didn’t conform to whatever we loved or detested to begin with.

Trying to unstack the deck, I stack it. Trying to frame 2012 as dispassionately as possible, I take into account not only the melodramatic clichés of every election but friends and family who I love and who are dear to me and who tomorrow will choose Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. My 84-year-old mother—existing on Medicare, Social Security, an FHA reverse mortgage, and a pension from my father who, by way of a corporate middleman, worked for NASA’s space program in the 1960s and early 1970s—will hurry to her polling place to vote against Obama’s socialist agenda. Raised a conservative Republican in my youth, I appreciate philosophical interrogations of the role of government in American life. I appreciate the legitimate skepticism of a government that, by its power and some benevolence that we take for granted too easily, purports to facilitate possibilities of freedom and opportunity and justice but may as easily, by its nature and the corruption that attends power as a matter of course, obstruct and repress those possibilities. These are fundamental American arguments that have existed since Jefferson and James Madison squared off against John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Suspicion of government may be the single healthiest and most reassuring distinction of the American political personality. 

Acknowledging this, I would hope that, out of sheer sportsmanship if not character, some might similarly acknowledge having no real idea what socialism is. For Fox News commentators, this doesn’t matter; the socialist accusation has become a shtick that makes for television effective and profitable enough to render irrelevant the limits of Eric Bolling (“Socialism sucks!”) let alone objective standards by which Obama’s presidency has been to the right of Harry Truman’s, Lyndon Johnson’s, and in some ways that of Roger Ailes’s old boss Richard Nixon, whose failed health-care plan—rejected almost 40 years ago as not left-wing enough—would have compelled all employers, companies and corporations to cover virtually all of the country’s health costs. Defined for a couple of centuries as state control of the means of mass production, socialism has come to be considered, since the moment Obama stepped foot into the White House, as any government involvement in the economy whatsoever, which is to say we’ve been a socialist country since 1791 when Hamilton created a national bank, since the federal government’s foray into the real estate business in the early 1800s when President Jefferson raided the treasury to make a killing on the Louisiana territories, since President Andrew Jackson used the government to break up the same bank that Hamilton used the government to make, since Republican President Lincoln used the government to build a railroad and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt used the power of the federal government to break up big business. The question is whether any of this historical miscellany matters to those who call Obama a radical any more than does information having to do with the world’s weather. 

On left and right, we persist in making Obama our metaphor for radicalization in the face of anything he has done or said he would do. The country has been in a state of hysteria about Obama since hard-headed people realized he actually could become president both in spite of his metaphors and because of them. Hysteria for the new president upon his election, as unsettling as it was inspiring because it was as unsustainable by the public as it was by Obama himself, gave way within weeks of his inauguration to a counter-hysteria that suggested the president was a dictator, a fascist, the passport-snatching spawn of African veldts. This was the enraged response to a euphoria too uncommon to last any longer than fleetingly. None of the antipathy to Obama ever has been about “conservatism,” a term that has changed as profoundly as has the term socialism; the Barry Goldwater who was my first political hero, rightly rejected in his 1964 run for the presidency as too far outside the political mainstream and whom legend if not history regards as the most extreme nominee of any major political party in the post-World War II era, favored voting rights, abortion rights, women’s rights, gay rights, Native-American rights, ending the draft, legalizing marijuana, and protecting the environment, and spent the last decade and a half of his life unambiguously—pretty much everything Goldwater did and said was unambiguous—detesting the theocratic impulse that in the 1980s began to characterize a Republican Party still significantly left of the party today. Ideology today shapeshifts to fit a pathology that masquerades as philosophy. Today’s right is an Obama Right. Unlike the Reagan Right, it designates itself not by its savior but its antichrist, regardless of how the antichrist bears no resemblance to any actual person.

That some Americans of good faith will vote against the president tomorrow doesn’t change that his defeat will vindicate the inexhaustible bad faith of his opposition. That some will vote for Romney in good conscience doesn’t change the strategy that resolved from the beginning to displace Obama at all cost, to openly call for his failure before he began, to deny support even of long-held Republican ideas (such as the individual mandate in a free-market health-care system) once the president acquiesced in order to attempt bipartisan consensus, to ruthlessly rebuff presidential offers of two-and-a-half-dollar spending cuts in return for a single dollar of tax revenue extracted from those who can afford to pay it in order to achieve a grand bargain on debt reduction, to resolutely discourage anyone from the Republican ranks from joining Obama in any fashion under any circumstances, whether it be New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg who caved to party pressure and reneged on a 10-day agreement to be the president’s secretary of Commerce or the Republican governor of New Jersey trying last week to salvage his storm-strafed state. The id of the right pursues not mere victory tomorrow, not mere defeat of the incumbent. The Republican id, insisting that this American president is neither American nor president, means to reject not his ideas but the very fact of him. 

This is the metaphor of Mitt Romney to the extent that Romney is capable of being one. Stack the deck, unstack it, stack it again: It’s well to wish that, at least at the end, a campaign is one of high notes. But if character is destiny, it’s telling how even Romney voters are incapable of proposing persuasively that this election is about a challenger who has no political character, who never has stood up to anyone in order to take a principled stand on anything that anyone can determine other than his right not to tell the public what he hasn’t paid in taxes. Even a serious columnist like The New York Times’ David Brooks must turn the former Massachusetts governor into a figment of imagination in order to conjure some flicker of feeling for him. The measure of the Romney character, and maybe the ultimate measure of the Romney destiny, is how the so-called “enthusiasm gap” that the Republican campaign believes will produce a national tide on the governor’s behalf tomorrow has everything to do with hating Obama and not a single thing to do with admiring anything about Romney, thus sparing Romney’s partisans the tedium of locating about him anything admirable. Whether Governor Romney wins or loses, this election is about a tumultuous presidency that averted economic cataclysm, rescued industry, reformed health care, protected women, advanced gay rights, ended wars, killed mortal enemies, and is more estimable than credited by not just Obama’s opponents but the rest of us who carped when it wasn’t done fast or fully or elegantly enough. Should Romney be elected tomorrow, we will be as complicit in the loss of faith in something bigger as we are for having had faith in Obama in the first place. Without such faith, the country—this country in particular—is nothing. Tomorrow I’ll cancel out my mother’s vote; in pure numbers, it’s the best I can do. I’ll vote for faith one more time, not knowing when I’ll have the chance again. I’ll vote one more time, not knowing when I’ll have the chance again, for the better angels of our nature. The gathering forces of darkness notwithstanding, I hear whose name they whisper.

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