Soon the fever boiling the bloodlust of the known world will break, and then what? Which Barack Obama will we get, the one his friends and allies in Hyde Park are counting on to remake America into a nation of stale leftist dreams, or the Barack Obama who understands that Americans want change, but not changing America to a place they wouldn’t recognize?
Only those with hearts of brick and stone cannot be moved by the joy and euphoria, unbridled by reality as it may be, of the millions of young and old, black and white, who now imagine that every rough place will be made smooth, every pothole patched, every slight and injustice redressed. (A lot to ask of a mere president.) The quivering chin, the tears trickling down the cheeks of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, standing mute in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night and unaware of the public eye for once, looked fully authentic. So, too, the ecstasy on the face of the Florida woman who did a star turn on Internet video blogs voicing expectations of the rewards for her vote: “Now I don’t have to worry about putting gas in my car, I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage.”
The president-elect deserves nothing less than the heartfelt good wishes of all, and a humble prayer, as in the words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, “for thy servant the president of the United States … and so replenish [him] with the grace of the Holy Spirit that [he] may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way.”
The national obsession with President Obama as allegory, and not with the real President Obama and the tangled inheritance of every man elected to the most powerful office in the world, will continue for a season. None among us can say where and how the obsession ends, as all obsessions must when expectations finally light on the dark and bloody ground of hard reality. The nation’s obsession with the new president-elect, borne of starkly different perceptions of race in America, is bound to disappoint either white or black, and probably both.
“Does his victory mean that America is now officially beyond racism?” asks Shelby Steele, the author and political philosopher at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, writing in the Los Angeles Times. “Does it finally complete the work of the civil rights movement so that racism is at last dismissible as an explanation of black difficulty? Can the good Revs. [Jesse] Jackson and [Al] Sharpton now safely retire to the seashore? Will the Obama victory dispel the twin stigmas that have tormented black and white Americans for so long - that blacks are inherently inferior and whites inherently racist? Doesn’t a black in the Oval Office put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn’t it imply a ‘post-racial’ America?”
Mr. Steele, one of the few public men who is willing to actually undertake the serious discussion of race that so many politicians and pundits say they seek, argues that whites who have jettisoned so much racism over the past four decades don’t really want “change” from the Obama presidency so much as they want credit for what they have done so far, that what they really expect from an Obama White House is “certification and recognition.”
White voters, particularly young voters who turned things upside down this week, flocked to Mr. Obama for what they imagined was his “post-racialism,” and in doing so acted from racial motives themselves. They were seduced by a vision of racial innocence.
Blacks will be disappointed, too, if they come to realize that Mr. Obama is a tweaker, not a changer, a politician content to snip and trim the status quo around its fuzzy edges. Because he’s likely to be a nudger, not a leader, he might be reluctant to seriously address the grim disparity between white and black America - the fact of seven in 10 black children born to unmarried mothers, the fact of declining black SAT scores, the fact of 13 percent of the nation’s population supplies more than half of the population of federal prisons.
Simply because expectations are so high, the impact of coming down to earth will be so much harder. The Europeans, eager to adopt Barack Obama as a president of their own, will get a hard landing, too, when they realize that he, like presidents before him, was elected to look after American interests, not theirs. They’re entitled only to a good speech. But let us gather rosebuds while we may, with the prayer and a toast. Hail to the new chief.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.