Circling the Square

Circling the Square


The day before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, I was having breakfast in Chicago with my friend Paul Smith. Paul’s what might be called an Obama “early adopter.” Like a lot of young, Chicago progressives, he threw himself into Obama’s senate candidacy when he was just a long-shot in a crowded primary field. In fact, Paul and I first met at an Obama fundraiser in the fall of 2003. So few donors had bought tickets for the event that a mutual friend on the campaign asked us to show up just to fill the room.

Over breakfast we talked about Obama’s impending announcement. Paul was preparing to drive down with me on Saturday to watch the speech in person, but feeling ambivalent about the candidate himself. “I can’t quite figure out where to plant my flag on him,” he said. “I was looking back at my blog from 2004 and the posts I wrote about him and I was so completely committed to him and so convinced he was special and wanted to convince others. And now, I just, I can’t quite get back to that. I want to recapture it, but I can’t remember what it was.”

In the car-ride down to Springfield on Saturday, we were also joined by our friend Dan, another early supporter. He met Obama through a mutual friend around the same time Paul became involved with the campaign. He donated money, organized friends, and became close with many of the campaign staff. I asked Dan if he shared Paul’s doubts. “I have issues,” he said with a frown. “He’s so fucking coy. I mean, I love the guy, but there are things that really matter to me, and they’ve got to really matter to him. And it’s not clear to me right now that they do.”

This sentiment is pretty widely shared among the Chicago progressives I know. Many have grown disillusioned with a man they once thought was one of their own and now seems in danger of becoming just another politician. Part of this can be chalked up to a kind of punk-rock-band-gone-MTV disaffection. People who were into Obama when he was an underground, authentic phenomenon aren’t necessarily so into the slickly produced, more pop-friendly version.

But then, music can be both really predictable and really popular, and the same is true of politicians. When I talked to people on Saturday, who’d come out on a freezing February morning to stand in the cold and hear a speech they recited, with an almost unsettling fidelity, the campaign’s own buzzwords: A college student from downstate said she liked Obama because he was from a “different generation,” and that she’d decided to come to “be part of history.” A recovering Republican grandmother said she admired Obama because he was “fresh” and two middled-age men with Obama t-shirts spent several minutes telling a Chinese news crew that Obama was a “uniter not a divider.” The reporter kept pushing the two men to name specific examples of this quality, but they just kept repeating the point.

Having it both ways, attempting to be at once a progressive champion and an ideological cipher, has become the hallmark of the Obama rhetorical strategy, but there are still so many circles this campaign is trying to square, you wonder if it can last. On the one hand, Obama wants to present his campaign as something more than a campaign, a kind of grassroots, people-powered movement. “That’s why I’m in this race,” he said Saturday, “Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.” When people like Paul and Dan and others were working on Obama’s senate campaign in 2004, that’s how it felt. But now he’s running for president at a moment in history when the national media rewards the kind of air-tight focus and message discipline that are not exactly what actual grassroots movements are known for producing. So as people entered the square outside the old state capitol in Springfield, security confiscated any home-made signs (all they need is one off-message slogan — “Destroy The Zionist State!” — in the frame to cause a week of headaches.) But inside the entrance to the plaza, someone, most likely the campaign, distributed ersatz homemade signs with slogans like “Barack the Vote!” and “Vote 4 Obama” all painted with the same multi-colored palette.

Then there’s the other major contradiction of the campaign, the fact that it is simultaneously promising two things — progress and unity — that have an uncomfortable relationship to each other. In his speech, Obama recited moments in American history when politics became something more than the mundane mechanics of governing and effected a true transformation of the polity: the civil war, the New Deal, the civil rights movement. But the problem is that those were moments not of unity, but of extreme polarization. The South only granted rights to black citizens under force of arms, armies of unruly war veterans gathered in Washington DC during the Great Depression to demand the government provide them with a safety net, and when Martin Luther King Jr went marching through the South, he was met with batons and firehoses and accusations that he was dividing people and stirring up trouble.

Standing on the site of where Abraham Lincoln gave his “house divided” speech, Obama invoked him as a model:

“[T]he life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.He tells us that there is power in words.He tells us that there is power in conviction.That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people.”

It’s hard to quarrel with the sentiment. But Obama didn’t mention that Lincoln was also the most hated and polarizing figure in American presidential history. Sometimes unity is the price of progress.

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