Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Obama’s cool political prospects

Eminent British journalists can be counted on to bring to the surface the adolescent yearnings and fevered dreams that drive America. Mary Ann Sieghart exercised this skill eloquently in “The Independent” on Monday. Savour this:
“When President Obama redecorated the Oval Office, it was in various shades of beige.  "I like taupe," he explained to The New York Times. Taupe is an abomination. It's a nothing colour. It doesn't shout "drab"; it murmurs it. What a tragic mutation from the vibrant red and blue of those Obama posters emblazoned with the word "HOPE". It is as if Obama's taste in decoration is a symbol of the energy that has leeched out of his presidency, culminating in those awful midterm election results last week. The virtues he had then have become his faults now.

‘They want their President to understand what they are going through, to empathize with their worry, their anger and their insecurity. They are either terrified of losing their jobs and their homes, or furious that it has already happened.

“Prime ministers can be cool and detached as long as they are competent, but heads of state have to touch citizens' hearts as well as their heads. A head of state has to "stand tall", as Ronald Reagan famously put it.

“For Tea Party supporters, by contrast, Obama's narrow range of emotions, from Zen-like to mildly irritated, is immensely frustrating. The more angry they feel about him, the less he reacts. Anyone who has had a fight with a partner or a parent will know how annoying this is. You want them to shout back, not to smile delphically and look utterly unmoved.”

The barbarians are approaching your lovely gates! Please, Mr. President, emote!

The other argument to restyle Obama’s appeal feels more scientific—locating people’s desires in their demographics. There was a huge drop-off in voter turn-out. Consequently, the electorate was whiter, more Republican, and significantly older. In fact, barely 11 % of those who voted were under thirty. To put it in adversarial terms, standing in front of every young voter were two seniors waiting patiently to exercise their franchise.

The big facts are settled: seniors are highly politicized and, today, favour the Republicans and most young people are not interested in politics.

The right response by Obama, however, is not obvious. Before waiting for him to be more excitable or to feel sad if he can’t, Obama’s loyalists should consider the facts from another perspective.

First, Obama is an incumbent President governing in fragile as well as painful circumstances. The vibrant colours of the “Hope” campaign would look garish in a working office. Most important, next time, he won’t have the emotional license of an aspirant. As the incumbent, he’ll have to reason with the people, as is his wont.

Second, the perils of our time may increasingly favour his boringly deliberate style. Like prairie fires, raging rhetoric burns out. As Tina Fey already knows and Republicans will discover, caricatures end up, like Rosie-the-riveter, on rec-room walls.

Third, in normal general elections (as 2012’s will likely be) young people are missed but seniors are more important. Respecting this fact, however, doesn’t necessarily mean bad news for Obama or idealists. Positive feelings and thoughtfulness, in politics, are not cleanly distributed by age.

We cannot know for sure, as pollsters may suppose, exactly what it was about Obama that got young voters out in 2008. However, it is not evident that his looks were more decisive amongst young voters than his carefully crafted appeal to the future. Further, there is no objective reason to believe that a credible appeal to the future would not appeal to older voters who have lived through error and political mischief for a life time.

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