EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Let us say, as a thought experiment, that history and providence conspired to create a president suited to 21st-century America. He might unite in his own person the two races that are shorthand for difference and division within the society, and have deep personal bonds with both black and white. Race has only the meaning that culture gives it—and we learn every day that culture is a heavy-handed enforcer of the distinctions it has made. An ideal president would be one suited to his circumstance, to dealing with the potent aftershocks of an unjust and violent history. If it were clear that he loved and honored, and identified with, both streams of his heritage, he would bring as much humanity to this grievous old affliction as any one person could bring to it.
Only imagine how the unacknowledged empire our country has become would be made more knowing and refined if this president had the memory of passing his childhood among the children of societies that seem remote to most of us: chasing a tattered kite down a muddy road, hearing the call to prayer, learning new forms of courtesy, seeing the effects of lawless government on the lives of good people. Again, if this president had family who were part of the emergence of Africa from centuries of colonialism—a continent at the threshold of the world’s future, a complex and fragile phenomenon capable of igniting and also extinguishing extraordinary individual gifts—he would have a vantage point uniquely suited to his responsibilities toward this volatile planet. In both cases, he would have 10,000 times the understanding that is supposed to be acquired in congressional junkets and sophomore years abroad.
This is a kind of understanding that individual Americans are happy to claim on the slightest grounds. Oddly, at the same time, the public seems to be flattered by the notion that a “real” America would be more provincial than it ever was, isolated from the effects of foreign influences as colonies in a mercantile empire, then as an immigrant country, never could be. Those who speak of the United States as great, formerly if not at present, must acknowledge that immigration has been concomitant with our greatest moments, wherever they wish to locate them. It is perverse, though clearly effective, to treat deep experience of other cultures as compromising. The candidate John Kerry spoke French—so much for him. So did Jefferson and Franklin and Adams, and they read it too, as educated Americans did during that seminal period—to our benefit, no doubt.
The United States is a very great power. It created its modern posture against an adversary it took to be equivalent to itself, perhaps even more powerful. That opponent has fallen away, more or less, and America is left with an overhanging capability to do harm, which is an important definition of power. This capability may no longer be suitable for deterring threats to us, but it is real and undiminished. As we have learned in the course of this instructive election season, there are those who think that since we have it, we might as well use it. Not against Russia, of course, that important region in the new nation of Oligarchia, but against ragtag radicals who torment regions that do not need the further catastrophes our power would visit on them. No war will end war, short of Armageddon. So we had better consider other options. A president for whom other societies are not abstractions, who knows that the children of our enemies are as silly and lovely as our own children, would be well suited to helping us live more consistently with our values, granting all the obstacles that history has put in his path.