January 14, 2008
From Liberty Street

The Value of Symbolism

John Turner

Numerous voices have proclaimed that Barack Obama as president would present to the world, and to ourselves, a new face of America, one that had cleansed itself of racism and was ready to embrace all people as full human beings. This would be such a powerful message that no other political considerations can be compared to it.

About two weeks ago, in the Washington Post, Reza Asian took on that argument in an attempt to refute it. Obama's skin color is not going to repair our relations with the world he said. Thinking it will comes from people who are not ready to accept blame for the mess we have created or are willing to clean it up. Instead they want to avoid the hard work by slapping on a new coat of paint. Furthermore, he continued, talk about intuitive experience and re-branding the American image comes mostly from "those who began this 'New American Century' as ardent supporters of Bush's wars and his self-advertised 'gut' instincts."

There is much in what Asian says, but I don't think he's right to dismiss the power of Obama as symbol. It would speak to the world and the message it sent would be good.  The question is, how good, compared to other things we might do?

The doubt we find ourselves in comes mostly from Obama himself. He has not been forthcoming with specific policies, and when he has issued position papers they have usually been forced out of him by plans put forward by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. We don't know much about what kind of president Obama would be when he got down to day-by-day governing. It easy to understand this reticence as campaign strategy. In order to win over independents and Republicans with the call of coming together as one people, it's best not to be overly clear about what you intend to do. And, after all, isn't winning and getting the likes of George Bush out of the White House more important than policy pronouncements that nobody's going to pay much attention to anyway? Obama is mostly telling us to trust him because he's a good man who wants good things. But I'm afraid, for his sake, that's not going to work as he had hoped.

Already, there are serious signs of trouble.  On Saturday in the New York Times, Paul Burka, editor of the Texas Monthly, pointed out that Obama's stance now is much the same as George Bush's was in 2000, when he was running for his first term in the White House. Bush was a uniter who was going to bring us together, but what he brought about in Texas was the near destruction of the Democratic Party. Burka's point was summed up in the title of his piece, "United We Fall." Our political system is built, he said, on adversarial relations, and we would be better off to recognize that it is and not be taken in by dreams of sweet unity. Everybody is not going to come together and using that appeal as a path to political power is inherently dangerous.

On Sunday, in the Washington Post, David Greenberg posted an essay titled, "Why Obamania? Because He Runs As the Great White Hope." The central passage in the piece said this: "Obama's allure differs from the infatuation of past election cycles because it can't be traced to what he has done or will do." Echoing a theme from Reza Asian's article, Greenberg argues that young, white, well-educated Americans, who see themselves as liberals, still want to escape the effort of digging into the American past, finding the rot, and repairing it. It would be so much easier -- and guilt-relieving too -- merely to choose someone who symbolizes a fresh start rather than to worry about the work required to accomplish it.

This, of course, is what the Clinton campaign has been saying, timidly up till now because they have feared to be seen as opposing the symbolism Obama embodies. I suspect that as others flesh out their argument, they will grow more bold.

Thus we can envision a campaign in which Hillary Clinton will be forced to show how her piece-by-piece reform does, in its whole, constitute a new and better way for the American people. And Obama's task, clearly, will be to convince the electorate that there is substance behind his rhetoric. John Edwards's contribution could be to push both the leading candidates towards concern for the hitherto invisible segments of our population. Neglect of them has been a major part of the rot.

It's good for us to have such a campaign, That's why it was good for voters in New Hampshire to stem the Obaman tide that was about to sweep him to the nomination before he was carefully examined. The major benefit, of course, will be to strengthen whomever becomes the Democratic candidate in the general election. Obama will not make it unless he can find a way to be something more than a symbol of hope. Clinton will not make it unless she can convince the electorate that incremental changes can lead to major reform.

As we work our way through the next couple months the nation ought to arrive at an answer to the question, is symbolism enough? The answer is no, but it is necessary.


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