Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Soft-Bigotry Of High Expectations

Daniel Larison:

What I am trying to say is that we should not set up the next President for failure by making such grandiose, unfounded claims about what his election will mean for our relations with the rest of the world. The next administration is going to enjoy a long honeymoon, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but we should all be as sober and clear-eyed as possible about what a President Obama is realistically going to be able to do and what he isn’t.

Well, yes and no. Conventional wisdom in all quarters is that either Barack Obama will prove to be the Second Coming, or there are going to be a lot of disappointed people. When it turns out his Health Care Plan isn't just a laying-on of hands and curing our collective leprosy, but probably will be a human system with human problems--and may or may not pass, may or may not conflict with his other problems, etc. etc.--well, on that day, certain folks will look at us and smile.

Larison is correct that it's important to distinguish between the tone of the Obama campaign and the substance. As one commenter noted, it's hard to tell the difference between a President who sees cross-border raids into Pakistan and supported Israel's incursion into Lebanon as a substantive change in policy.

These concerns are well-founded. I, myself, as an Israeli in the Jewish-American community, was extremely upset at the sucking up Obama did at the AIPAC event during the primary election; for many years I have believed that Israel's position of privilege in our politics that have complicated our role as a mediator.

On the other hand, there is still a substantive change in the policies that are coming. It has to do with the style in which decisions will be made. Barack Obama looks at the facts. He listens to allies and to enemies. He speaks and he thinks before he acts.

Are those substantive changes in policy? They don't sound like it. But they actually are. When we talk about war being "the option of last resort"; how often is Obama going to be forced to resort to it? President Bush was forced to resort to it repeatedly (and would have more, if he had the resources) because he lacked the patience and the listening skills to be able to cooperate. He was willing to fabricate facts and gun it alone.

Specifically on the issue of Pakistan raids: one of the conditions he attached to that is if they have a very clear intelligence on Bin Laden and the Pakistanis refuse to do anything about it he would strike. Yes, I understand the various complications around that. But at a certain point, Obama is going to have to go it alone sometimes. And yet I have more optimism that Obama would be more successful at getting the Pakistanis to do something about it.

In general, Larison's point stands: let's not be too hyperbolic in expectation about Obama. But talking up Obama's opportunities is not a negative gesture: in The Audacity of Hope (I don't have my copy with me, so I'll paraphrase), he talks about "split-screen vision"; with one eye, you see things as they could be, and in the other eye, you see things as they are. Yes, Obama's presidency will not be all of our hopes and dreams. But we should have hopes and dreams, and continue to evaluate Obama's presidency in those terms.

And unlike President Bush, when he fails to live up to the original deal, it should be us, the followers, the supporters, the ones who fought hard to get him there and bought into his hope, need to be the ones to keep him on the right path.

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