I have been struggling with what to say about President Obama lately. His jobs bill is a very good thing on a practical level. His desire to tax the rich at a fair rate is too slow in coming, but also a great thing that starts to address the issue of fairness. In short, the President has become — in the last two months — the man I voted for four years ago. What he doesn’t get, however, is why I voted for him in the first place — which leads me to be cynical now and for the foreseeable future. Jon Stewart was right , “Campaign Obama is back”. The problem is that I believe he’s only doing this now because he’s campaigning again. What he’s done is target the biggest people who will vote for him — unions, teachers, etc. and attempted to give them jobs, which he believes will be enough to restart the economy. I don’t know if it will be enough, but it’s a good start. As a matter of “what he’s done in 8 years” if he’s re-elected, he may well be remembered as a great president. Ending the war in Iraq, ending it in Afghanistan, ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, getting more general acceptance of gays and lesbians, getting more Americans health coverage, bringing Detroit and the Auto industry back from the brink — these are all good things — very good things. But none of those things are what I elected him for, really.
What I elected him for is what’s happening in the streets of New York — and now elsewhere. The reason that I voted for Obama was that he was a great speaker, a leader, a man with a vision of America who — because of his vision, told us that we could have a vision. I didn’t vote for specific policies. I voted for vision — a dream of who we could be. I voted for a man who would make it fashionable to engage in politics again — in our cities and towns, in our states, and in our country. I voted for a man who could help us remember what being citizens meant and what democracy felt like.
Years ago, when Elizabeth Horton-Scheff was leaving the Connecticut Conference staff of the United Church of Christ, I said about her that she was like a motorboat whose wake left progress easier for those who followed with their own dreams. That is what I voted for Obama for. For years, there had been a sense that we were choosing between the lesser of two (of ten) evils when voting. In 2008, I actually felt like we had voted for the best man America had to offer. We knew quality when we saw it, and we were going to exercise our right to choose for our own best interests. It wasn’t about him, but about us. We had a vision of fairness and goodness and being involved in things that mattered and we finally found somebody who could take us towards it.
After years of wanting one thing (peace, truth, justice) and getting the opposite (war, lies, and division) from elected officials that I didn’t expect much from in the first place, here was a chance to say to future generations “this is what it’s like when a bunch of people agree. See how great it is to be an American? Now go out and be one!” It was the fact that my $5.00 donation counted for something along with millions of other $5.00 donations that gave me hope — for a change.
But the Supreme Court made it nearly impossible that fairness could win the day when they said “corporations are people”. Then the Tea Party arrived and started yelling insanely. Then Congress fought every day with the President. “Yes, We Can” became “Oh no, you don’t!” And — when the President had the chance to be visionary, he backed down time and again. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. People couldn’t get a job, couldn’t afford a house, and now have to choose between buying food and paying their bills in more and more places. Obama’s tax on private jet planes fell on deaf ears. Seriously? Do a lot of people out there have private jet planes? There weren’t more people who could agree to tax them than had them? Seriously?
That’s where we were two months ago — people in their homes, watching their democracy do nothing, not represent them, making things worse. We still knew where the problems were, and what they were, but we had learned we were helpless to do anything. We watched as democracy took root in the middle east (without a war!) while our own country slipped away. The economic recession reflected our psychological depression.
Then something weird happened –Canadians got involved — and not even political Canadians — artistic ones! Adbusters magazine is one I see every once in awhile. It is made by artists and it parodies and twists the current vision of “Capitalism for all!” and “Buying stuff makes us happy!” enough to make us think about what we do and who we are. And somehow, maybe because they’d seen the protests\occupation fo the Wisconsin state capitol, Adbusters came up with this idea — using twitter and other things — “# Occupy Wall Street!” — and frustrated people did.
Then “The Establishment” refused to cover it. Washington didn’t talk about it, the media didn’t talk about it and — since image is supposed to be everything — it was supposed to fade away. But the vision of a fair America, where things worked for most folks, kept creating more frustration with the way things are. The Spark was there and it didn’t simply extinguish itself. More people heard about it and decided to get active. Still no mass coverage. People who are sick of not being heard yell louder — it’s a natural human tendency. So more people came out and got support. Then 700 people got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. That was too big to ignore. When representative democracy no longer works, the people will represent themselves. This past weekend, non-violent protests like Occupy Wall Street popped up around the country. The New York Times reports that “these people are in it for the long haul”. NPR reported on the arrests of people on the bridge. Some transit workers refused to help arrest their fellow citizens. Citizens are not dousing the Spark of Democracy anymore and it is a good thing.
People are once again active in their own lives, active in their own political system, active in their own economic lives. To say it is a political “movement” right now would be to say that there’s a leader and specific goals — and there aren’t. Even Adbusters just wanted to see what would happen, I think. To say that it is a spiritual movement, however, would be right on the mark. It is “an outward and visible sign” of our desire for fairness, housing, a chance to have work count for something, a chance for one-person-one-vote. FOX can’t blame it on President Obama, because neither of them matter here. This is not about them, any more than Obama’s election was about him. This is about us, with hope, demanding change.
How’s that hopey-changey thing working for us? We don’t know yet, but it feels a lot better than no hope and no change.