Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Big Picture: Perspective from the Real World

I've been out in Chicago for the last couple days, and as has consistently happened when I step outside of the world of the Strike and I constantly reading articles and sending them to each other and generally getting too carried away in the daily tizzy of media politicos, time in the real world restores my sense of perspective. It means realizing once again the primacy of the Three Big Truths - deep concern about the economy, disgust with Bush and the Republican Party, and hope and faith in Barack Obama. These three truths are so much important than the ups and downs of the daily or weekly news cycle. I know I sound like a broken record repeating this, but those Three Big Truths dominate the landscape, and they won't be relinquishing that position for a long, long time. For the political operatives, reporters, and commentators, a long time is one week. To these types, the two months since the Inauguration are an eternity, the national euphoria of that weekend a relic of some bygone era. But it is extremely important to remember that the sense of time is completely different for most people in America.

Though the blogs and the cable news channels track winners and losers daily, people's political opinions shift at a glacial speed, taking years and even decades to change in any significant way. High-speed technology has drastically sped up the cycles of opinions of the hyper-well-informed (the Picturette and Lady Strike might say "obsessed"), but they didn't speed up political realignments, just as all the fanciest technology hasn't been able to replace the central power of door-to-door, face-to-face organizing at creating political change. This is why it is extraordinarily premature to declare any sort of end to Obama's honeymoon, or a "backlash" to big government.

The key word in poltical change is inertia. Like a gigantic boulder, it takes a great deal of force to set change in motion. But once the change is in motion, pebbles and bushes and even trees in the way can't stop the inertia of the boulder in motion. The combination of the massive public rejection of the Bush Administration and the Republican Party, the economic crisis causing tremendous terror and insecurity and a desperate search for solutions, and the rise of Barack Obama as the man who embodies everything we're looking for, and is the opposite of everything we're rejecting - this combination was powerful enough to get the boulder to start rolling, to break from the basic alignment, power dynamics, and spectrum of debate that had prevailed for 30-40 years in the Reagan Era. These earthshattering, realigning events of the past 4 years are in the process of seriously realigning American politics, of the way Americans view their government and their society, and you can really sense that in both the quantitative evidence of polls and elections, and the qualititative evidence of personal observations and conversations as well as reading lots and lots of newspaper articles. People's basic political guideposts - which really only shift in a politically significant way every three or four decades - are in serious flux, or as the Strike and I like to say, churn. The story of the day or week may slightly alter the speed or direction of that change, but they're not stopping the avalanche.

Out here in Chicago we did a little tour of the Obama rise, from the South Side neighborhoods where Michelle grew up and Barack worked as an organizer, to his big house in Hyde Park, to the deli Manny's where his top adviser David Axelrod plotted his strategy to turn a longshot nobody into a Senator and a President, to Grant Park where he celebrated his stunning and historic victory. People often speak of Obama's rise as meteoric, but it is very instructive to be reminded that Obama did not rise to the Presidency overnight, with one big step, but rather with decades of steady work. In the same way, as Obama likes to remind us, we did not fall us into this crisis in a month, or a year, or even a decade, but over the course of many decades. Obama is too gracious and politically shrewd to add this, but I will: not only did we take decades to fall into this ditch, but the very same people, institutions, and ideologies who drove us in are still there, still powerful, still smugly, self-righteously standing in the way of progress.

The takeaway is both pessimistic and optimistic. I am sobered when I realize that, even with the stunning political realignment set in motion by the Three Big Truths, we as a nation and a world are in deep trouble, we're not going to get out of it to a brighter day soon, and there will be many frustrations and setbacks along the way. However, I still feel optimistic. The epochal churn unleashed by the Three Big Truths is real, not a product of my wildest dreams, and in fact it's a lot more real than the daily coverage on TV and the internet. I am even more optimistic when I consider the career of Barack Obama. To a casual observer, Obama's talent and appeal is his ability to deliver thrilling moments, to sweep people up, to create unprecedented excitement. But in fact, as my Chicago trip has reminded me, Obama's greatest strength is his day-after-day solid consistency. His communication skills and effortless cool have been great complementary pieces, but the most impressive and superhuman aspect of Obama is his ability to stay steady, to keep disciplined, to stick to the goal and accomplish that goal, even as he can entertain doubts and opposing points of view and adjust to circumstances and new ideas. To sum it up, he gets things done, big things, seemingly impossible things. Looking back at his rise we remember the thrills of primary nights and convention speeches, but he didn't come from way behind to take down the Clinton campaign because of a few good nights. We remember the gushing celebrity endorsements and media hype, but he did not win because of that. He won because day in and day out he stayed steady and solid, his organization accomplished what they needed to. In the dark days when they were way behind, they never got discouraged, and during a week where the media ran wild, they adjusted and re-calibrated but never panicked, they weathered the storm, kept their heads.

So when there's a tough day or a tough week, when the media is on his back, remember that all of them wrote him off many many times, finding countless "obvious" reasons he could never win. When the powerful politicians in both parties tell him that he's not going to accomplish his goals, remember that almost of all of them endorsed someone else, and thought Obama could never come close to challenging Hillary, let alone beat her and then win the Presidency. Six years ago, this guy was an unknown black state senator from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama, when the two big national enemies were Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, who had publicly opposed a war that 2/3 of Americans supported, who had been humiliatingly crushed in his last political campaign, living in a country with no black Senators, where racial polarization and fear of big cities had powered a Reagan era that showed no signs of receding. Now that guy is President of the United States.

Times have changed. They're not changing back. And if I were a politician or a media commentator, I would think long and hard before I EVER underestimated Barack Obama.

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