May 2009 Issue
We are citizens, and Obama is a politician. You might not like that word. But the fact is he's a politician. He's other things, too--he's a very sensitive and intelligent and thoughtful and promising person. But he's a politician.
If you're a citizen, you have to know the difference between them and you--the difference between what they have to do and what you have to do. And there are things they don't have to do, if you make it clear to them they don't have to do it.
From the beginning, I liked Obama. But the first time it suddenly struck me that he was a politician was early on, when Joe Lieberman was running for the Democratic nomination for his Senate seat in 2006.
Lieberman--who, as you know, was and is a war lover--was running for the Democratic nomination, and his opponent was a man named Ned Lamont, who was the peace candidate. And Obama went to Connecticut to support Lieberman against Lamont.
It took me aback. I say that to indicate that, yes, Obama was and is a politician. So we must not be swept away into an unthinking and unquestioning acceptance of what Obama does.
Our job is not to give him a blank check or simply be cheerleaders. It was good that we were cheerleaders while he was running for office, but it's not good to be cheerleaders now. Because we want the country to go beyond where it has been in the past. We want to make a clean break from what it has been in the past.
I had a teacher at Columbia University named Richard Hofstadter, who wrote a book called The American Political Tradition, and in it, he examined presidents from the Founding Fathers down through Franklin Roosevelt. There were liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. And there were differences between them. But he found that the so-called liberals were not as liberal as people thought--and that the difference between the liberals and the conservatives, and between Republicans and Democrats, was not a polar difference. There was a common thread that ran through all American history, and all of the presidents--Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative--followed this thread.
The thread consisted of two elements: one, nationalism; and two, capitalism. And Obama is not yet free of that powerful double heritage.
We can see it in the policies that have been enunciated so far, even though he's been in office only a short time.
Some people might say, "Well, what do you expect?" And the answer is that we expect a lot.
People say, "What, are you a dreamer?"
And the answer is, yes, we're dreamers. We want it all. We want a peaceful world. We want an egalitarian world. We don't want war. We don't want capitalism. We want a decent society.
We better hold on to that dream--because if we don't, we'll sink closer and closer to this reality that we have, and that we don't want.
Be wary when you hear about the glories of the market system. The market system is what we've had. Let the market decide, they say. The government mustn't give people free health care; let the market decide.
Which is what the market has been doing""and that's why we have forty-eight million people without health care. The market has decided that. Leave things to the market, and there are two million people homeless. Leave things to the market, and there are millions and millions of people who can't pay their rent. Leave things to the market, and there are thirty-five million people who go hungry.