KYOTO — America appears to have been swept up in a feel-good moment. But as much as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama appeals to me as a public speaker and wordsmith, as much as I appreciate his candid, inclusive style as an antidote to everything redolent of President George W. Bush, as thrilled as I am for black Americans, who have proudly claimed the mulatto son of a Kansas mother and Kenyan father as one of their own — and by his precedent feel empowered by his victory — I don’t think the feel-good moment has arrived, or if it has, it is cruelly illusory.
That Obama gives good speeches is a given, his acceptance speech stands as one of the best ever, good enough to rouse even jaded political commentators to goose bumps. Good enough to drive people to tears, not just Americans but even foreigners. I watched the acceptance speech with a classroom full of Japanese students and by the time the 16-minute speech had ended, a good number of students were crying.
“Wow. What did you think of that speech?” I asked. “I wish we had a leader like that,” said one. “It’s so powerful when he says ‘Yes We Can’!” chimed another. “I am so moved, he is kind to everyone,” said a third.
And despite misgivings rooted in a media analyst’s appreciation for Obama’s truly awesome and awesomely manipulative gift for language, I too was almost speechless after hearing his speech. It was such a sterling performance, so brilliantly crafted and so naturally read from two strategically placed Teleprompters that it seemed like he was talking from his heart to his closest friends.
Barring a few tired, over-worn cliches about Wall Street and Main Street, barring the braggadocio of American exceptionalism and the incantatory, quasi-religious refrain “Yes We Can,” Obama’s speech was a speech for the ages, down to the touching review of a century of history as imagined through the eyes of a 106-year-old voter, taking us back to “before there were cars on the road and planes in the sky” to the moon landing all the way on to the promise he made to his kids, that a puppy would be accompanying them to the White House.
Finding time to embrace erstwhile bitter rivals John McCain and Sarah Palin, finding time to include everyone who didn’t vote for him in his mandate to be the president of one and all, he seemed a man incapable of having enemies.
And therein lies the problem. Obama wants to play nice, and to do that in a contentious, demanding job, he needs to surround himself with people who are not so nice. This became immediately obvious with his first and most important political pick, Rahm Emanuel for White House chief of staff.
Emanuel, with his impressive resume as Washington insider, Clinton White House retread, wealthy investment banker and a harsh reputation as a political enforcer, is not only more Wall Street than Main Street, but rather akin to one of those hard-core Republican political operatives like Karl Rove or Newt Gingrich who Democrats so love to hate.
Politely described in the mainstream press as “aggressive” or “Rahmbo” or “obnoxious” or “combative,” the kind of guy who the New York Times reported as having shoved a steak knife into a restaurant table while expressing anger about political enemies, Emanuel can be as infuriating and bloodcurdling as Obama is inclusive and charming.
While still serving in the Clinton White House, Rahm Emanuel gave a talk to a seminar I attended at Harvard. When challenged on matters of policy or ethics, even in a friendly small group discussion over sherry and canapes, he would leap forward at those who dared to question him, clenching his fists with a menacing physicality that was either comical or intimidating depending on how much you liked to fight.
American voters fed up with the old Washington politics, suffering and anxious for absolution and release after eight years of heartache and disappointment, elected the ultimate anti-Bush only to get an anti-Obama appointed into the most strategic White House office slot, second to the president.
Proximity to an ax-man is not likely to alter Obama’s almost magical poise and good-humored equilibrium, but it will influence policy and raises judgment questions almost as serious as McCain’s lapse of judgment in choosing the ditzy Palin as his running mate.
What further deepens the disappointment with the man who promises to bring peace to a wounded world is his right-hand man’s hawkish identification with rightwing Israeli politics. Emanuel did a stint with the Israeli military during the first Gulf War — a confusing gesture if not a sign of mixed allegiance.
More generally, Emanuel’s hawkish, take-no-prisoners approach to politics promises not only to confound hopes for a more equitable and balanced White House, but also serves to keep war with Iran on the table.
For those who followed the flowering of Obama’s foreign policy thinking over the last few months rather than getting distracted with his effusive flowery rhetoric, it’s no secret that he is not only not antiwar but actively considering military escalations that even old battle-ax Bush was hesitant to make in tinderbox locations like Pakistan.
The brilliance of Obama’s speaking style lies in his ability to fire up sentimental notions of unity while evading matters of substance. In this sense he is both a better and worse speaker than his speech-giving teacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
From what I’ve seen on TV and YouTube, including “controversial” material that was used against Wright by Republican political operatives, I like the preacher’s style and forthright substance, even if I can’t agree with all of it. I like his dramatics, his vivid hand gestures, his ability to fire up an audience, his passion for his people.
Obama, who was exposed to virtually no such talk in Indonesia and little such talk in Hawaii, chose an effective mentor and exceeded his mentor in talking the talk, while toning it down and fine-tuning it for respectability and political correctness.
In short, if this was truly a victory for African-Americans, we’d see more Wrights than Rahms at Obama’s side in the White House, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, I hope Obama starts to show some real insight and originality in picking the rest of his administration, because America, saddled with twin disasters of a failed military policy and a failed economic policy, cannot afford to have the same old hawks and investment bankers peddling the same old wine in a new bottle.
Philip J. Cunningham is a professor of media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
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