Idealism in the age of Obama
Barack Obama's election in November and inauguration on Tuesday present a challenge to the belief system of some of us who were born, like the new president, in the closing years of the Baby Boom. Too young to have been stirred by John F. Kennedy's idealistic call to service when the torch was passed to a new generation (Kennedy was elected on my first birthday), our initiation to politics was more a license for cynicism. The Vietnam War and Watergate defined our political coming of age. A skeptical view of government power and those who wielded it became the lens through which leaders and events were seen.
Against such a backdrop, "hope" and "change" can quickly seem like little more than the starry-eyed dreaming of those not facing up to the reality of the way things really are. What, then, to do when a leader emerges who inspires in way few have? What is the right balance of hope and doubt to display, in particular, as a parent of two teenagers now experiencing their own coming of age, this one infused with the enthusiasm Obama has sparked in a young generation of Americans who need all the hope they can muster in the face of a rocky and uncertain future?
The warnings against unchecked Obama worship have already begun. Yesterday, Politico's Jim VandeHei and John Harris spelled out "Seven reasons for healthy skepticism" of Obama's chances of success. Some of the seven are factors outside of Obama's control ("We are broke" is one), but they also tweak the new president for having a record stronger on rhetorical flourish than tangible results and for rarely challenging Democratic interest groups.
Today, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi weighs in, chiding Obama for chiding in his inaugural address "the cynics [who] fail to understand that the ground has shifted beneath them." Citing the "benefit of the doubt" given to former President Bush over the premises for going to war after 9/11, Vennochi writes that "Americans should be questioning their leader more, not less, and the media should be leading the charge, not shrinking from the task." She goes on to link Obama's message to that of his good friend Deval Patrick, who has regularly lectured against unbridled cynicism, including in a tone-deaf speech to newspaper publishers and editors soon after winning office in 2006.Vennochi draws an important distinction between cynics and skeptics — the former, she says, "constantly question the sincerity of motives," while the latter "ask questions but can be persuaded by results." But Obama does not seem to be calling for a moritorium on skepticism. Indeed, one of his first official acts upon taking office was to sign three executive orders that will open more government documents to public scrutiny. It's hard to view such a move as anything other than an invitation for the kind of healthy skepticism that will hold government more accountable. Unless, of course, one questions the sincerity of his motives.
The new president's real message seems to be to believe in the ability of the country to rally together in tough times, an opportunity many think his predecessor blew following the 9/11 attacks. Obama's call for a new "era of responsibility" is hardly promising instant miracles. Rather, he is calling for an honest reckoning — by government, business, and citizens — with the problems we face and a willingness to tackle them collectively, a task that he said will require discarding "worn-out dogmas" that for too long have "strangled our politics." A healthy dose of skepticism is fine. But perhaps we need also to be daring enough to embrace at least a little bit of idealism to go with it.