"Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."- Abraham Lincoln: First Inaugural Address
Bill Clinton, for a very long time, represented the best of what Democrats could aspire to. In many ways he was a reflection of his time, and, perhaps, a level of egocentric survivalism that was inherent to his generation.
Bill Clinton was like a reality show contestant; plotting, triangulating, and emerging victorious, admirably. He defeated vicious foes that had employed loathsome attacks in 1988, eviscerating Dukakis. Those foes were prepared to do the same to the Democratic nominee in 1992 and Bill Clinton was a byproduct of this political reality. He was an antidote to Reagan's Republican national majority that was earned partly through bitter cultural divisions. Those divisions were cleverly exacerbated by George H. W. Bush in his race with Dukakis after Reagan had served two successive terms, winning two dramatic landslides. Many didn't believe it was possible for a Democrat to get elected President in 1992.
However, much to chagrin of Republicans, in sync with popular culture and compassionately engaged with the economic downturn, Bill Clinton charismatically resonated with an electorate that was redefining itself. The Vietnam era was finally slipping into the recesses of the nation's subconscious, (lying dormant, ready to emerge a decade later after September 11th and the lead up to the Iraq war).
Bill Clinton was a good President. He was a smart and practical man, who understood complex policy issues. In power, with the assistance of Dick Morris, he learned how to market himself to the center right. "The era of big government is over," he proudly announced, and slowly, but surely, he lost his compass, if it ever existed in the first place. As he scrambled in his final months to instigate a middle east peace process to cement his legacy it became apparent to me the extent of Bill Clinton's selfishness. He achieved everything he ever strived for, winning two successive terms and retaining the approval of large sways of the American people. But, in doing so, sound economic governance aside, no great strides were made. The success of his re-branding of the Democratic party with notions like the "third way" complemented a society where rampant commercialism was augmenting itself at the root of the national culture. Democrats admired Bill Clinton because he could win. Democrats admired Bill Clinton because of the proficient manner in which he played the game. His campaign staff called him "the secretariat," the ultimate political thoroughbred. If I'm honest with myself, that is why I admired him so deeply, too.
In Newsweek's outstanding journalistic opus charting the behind the scenes story from this year's Presidential campaign, the following passage stood out to me:
"Obama was upset with his own campaign after a low-level staffer referred in a press release to Hillary Clinton as "(D-Punjab)" because of her ties to supporters of India. "I don't want you guys freelancing and, quote, protecting me from what you're doing," he lectured his staff. "I'm saying this loud and clear—no winks, no nods here," he said, irritated to take the heat for a clumsy dirty trick he had not known about and would never have authorized. "I'm looking at every one of you. If you think you're close to the line, the answer isn't to protect me—the answer is to ask me."
It's so refreshing to think we have a President who truly understands the meaning of responsibility. After the disastrous last eight years, and the apparent state of denial of the Bush Administration, it is especially satisfying to consider the example this sets for all of us to take control of our lives, stand up for our mistakes, and not allow circumstances to control us or excuse us. A moment like this is the very definition of leadership and an expectation that we no longer have of our public officials in the excess of our growing cynicism and distrust.
Like John McCain, and to a lesser degree Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, Barack Obama's success can be directly attributed to his authenticity. He is a good man who has campaigned with integrity, and to me that aspect of his election speaks just as loudly as the fact that we have just elected the first African-American President. While Barack Obama has many parallels with Bill Clinton, and arguably represents a continuation of his policies to a greater extent than Hillary did, Obama also embodies many qualities that are quite absent from the former President. Part of that could be his youth and inexperience, but after being tested so dramatically in this campaign, and never faltering, I'm inclined to believe it is much more than that.
As Lincoln evoked so eloquently in his 1st inaugural address, national divisions, like those we have experienced these last eight years, can be assuaged by the "better angels of our nature . . . swelling the chorus of our union." And so Barack Obama has uplifted large sways of this country. There is an optimism surging nationwide that many have been longing for, founded on Obama's idealism, intelligence, hopefullness, and integrity.
In any democracy a President is a product of his or her era. Like Bill, Barack is a product of his. What inspired him to run for the office in early 2007 was an intuitive sense that people were ready for change. But, in reality that yearning he sensed was about much more than just change. We are in the midst of this new era, and as a result, it is impossible to say, with any degree of certainty, why Obama is so quintessentially of this time. Yes, his election counters the Bush Adminstration failures, and yes, it was a Democratic year. But, like with Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, and Kennedy, Obama's victory says much more than that about who we have become as a nation now.
In my opinion, the internet has transformed the consciousness of my generation and that explains the largest part of it. We are no longer an apathetic mass of marijuana bongs, beer pitchers, partying, and ecstasy pills. We are no longer an aimless mass with restricted avenues of self expression. Through the internet we are fully engaged with each other, charting out our own territory in the midst of an enthralling political discourse that is blossoming from youtube, to blogs, to message forums, and chat rooms. We have friends thousands of miles across the globe, from every continent, and country. As a result, we are less parochial, and much more internationally aware. We are environmentally conscious, and economically conscious. We are all activists now in our own way.
In addition, this new form of media is creating a powerful context for accountability that dismantles populist concepts like "Joe The Plumber" and counters unfair and dishonest negative attacks with the irrefutable truth of good humor, sarcasm and wit. We are a different nation than we were during the Clinton years, and while Obama has, to a certain extent, led us in this direction over the past twelve months, in many ways, this new generation has led him, too.
It is yet to be seen whether Obama will be a good President. It's quite possible that he won't be. But, he has already demonstrated that he is a much greater man than Bill Clinton ever was. To the extent that our leaders are a reflection of society at large I believe this says very good things about where we are heading over the coming decades. Suddenly, the prospect of great progress worldwide within my lifetime on matters of war, poverty, disease, the environment, economic opportunity, and social justice, do not seem so out of reach.
November 4th was the day that Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, but, November 4th was not the day that change came to America. Instead, it was the day that a changed nation, and a new generation, stood up, went to vote, and made sure its voice was finally heard.