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Obama, Year 1: Suiting Up


In December 2008, The Journal held a panel discussion in which three students and two faculty members focused on the significance of Barack Obama’s historic election as president of the United States. Excerpts from the talk were featured in the February 2009 issue of the paper. Here, two participants—drama student Shalita Grant and Liberal Arts faculty member Anthony Lioi—reflect on Obama’s first year in office.

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When I was invited to comment on the state of Barack Obama’s presidency, a song from the ’80s started ringing in my mind:

Your own personal Jesus.
Someone to hear your prayers,
Someone who cares.
Your own personal Jesus.

For those too young to remember this song by Depeche Mode, the first line is sung “Your OWN, PER-sonal, JEE-sus,” a synth-pop mantra about an exclusive bond with an all-powerful source of comfort. The idea of the boyfriend as savior, and the Savior as boyfriend, is certainly not new, but it explains the problem with President Obama that must be cleared away before I can render my own judgment. Much of the noise from left and right about Obama is couched in expectations of a messianic advent or its opposite, the rise of an anti-Christ. While some rail at the failure of our national Jesus, others lament the Beast in their own minds. This manner of thinking continues the idea of president-as-messiah that characterized the Bush years, fomenting an apocalyptic mindset in which political opponents are understood as the Forces of Darkness. And to my secular friends feeling smug, I say that lack of faith in a deity is no protection against belief in a promised land. The nation is often God’s understudy on the stage of history.

So let’s be clear: the expectation of a presidential messiah is idolatrous. The belief that the president is the anti-Christ exchanges one idolatry for another, the leader as incarnation of evil. Presidents do not have a divine or infernal nature. They are human, and must be judged as mortal and finite. Therefore I reject all disappointment or suspicion of Obama based on a superhuman nature of any kind.

I will say this for the man: for eight years, there was a screaming in my mind that finally stopped on January 20, 2009. I will always be grateful. In case I now appear too partisan, I admit I am a Green, with no stake in the success of a Democrat as such. In the recent gubernatorial elections in my home state of New Jersey, I voted for the Independent, Chris Daggett, who—despite sharing a name with a pet from Battlestar Galactica—combined the best qualities of a progressive Democrat and that beleaguered but honorable lineage, the liberal Republican. I hear some of you hissing out there, like a vampire in sunlight. Yes, I did just say a nice thing about Republicans. The inability to praise one’s enemies is the sign of an invidious political parsimony.

So, if Obama should not be judged in messianic terms, what terms should we employ? It is tempting to judge him on the promises of the campaign, which would at least produce a legitimate frame of reference. While it is fair to remind presidents of their rhetoric as candidates, the presidency is something, like death, or Thanksgiving with the family, for which one cannot entirely prepare. Therefore I offer an analogy drawn from a recent film, District 9, to describe what Obama is up against.

In District 9, a man is infected with a liquid from another world that turns him into an alien-human hybrid. Once the alien DNA takes hold, he can operate a military exoskeleton that makes him a formidable opponent. This is what seems to have happened to Barack Obama. The presidency is like a super-suit. Obama is now a member of a planetary ruling class whose influence makes him different in effect, if not in nature, from other citizens. Though the suit offers power, it also exacts a price. Human physiology has to get used to being 10-feet-tall and capable of firing rocket-mounted explosives. It must adjust to data streaming in from the ultraviolet, infrared, and radio spectra. The suit makes you clumsy at first, a little dangerous to yourself and your friends. Obama is adapting to the presidential sensorium, but he has already discovered that the suit is not omnipotent. It cannot, by itself, create a public option for national health care; it cannot force the Chinese, or the Senate, to commit to an atmospheric carbon dioxide limit of 350 parts per million; it has not ended racism as we know it. 

And yet, it has done many good things. As the child of a Depression-era father, I am relieved that the economy has not collapsed, though joblessness runs high and our neighbors on Wall Street still live in financial cloud-cuckooland. Energy and environmental policy are now in the hands of scientists who are clear-sighted, compassionate people, though the Green future cannot come too quickly. There is a new justice of the Supreme Court whose wisdom I trust. Diplomacy is back in style. Rivals have become cabinet members. Brown is the new black.

In brief, though “Obama: Year One” falls short by the standards of the New Jerusalem, it is a profound improvement over the immediate past. Whether this administration attains the heights of Great Administrations of Yore depends on Obama’s ability to master the exoskeleton of state before it masters him. Good luck, I say, to the Hybrid-in-Chief.


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