These days, when you hear so much from people about what, or who, they are going to vote against, while they complain bitterly that no politicians or set of policies match their particular requirements, it is worth listening to the words US President Barack Obama used to rally his Democrat troops before the healthcare vote last week. They represent the highest political endeavor and give the sense of a cause that remains just and noble despite all the compromises he had to make.
“Every once in a while,” he said, “a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made in all those town meetings and all those constituency breakfasts and all that traveling through the district, all those people who you looked in the eye and you said, you know what, you’re right, the system is not working for you and I’m going to make it a little bit better.”
“And this is one of those moments. This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, doggone it, this is exactly why I came here. This is why I got into politics. This is why I got into public service ... we are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true,” he said.
What a wonderful phrase that is about vindicating all your best hopes for yourself and the country. This is the finest of political aspirations and as a whole the speech tells you a lot about the tough commitment required from politicians and the public to make democracy work properly today. The speech will bookmark the history of his presidency and do what the proclamation on the emancipation of slaves did for the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, and the Civil Rights Act for Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
There’s still a long way to go on the new universal health insurance scheme, which will affect millions of black people and which caused such feeling between Republicans and Democrats that black members of Congress were subject to racist insults from protesters on Capitol Hill, but an irreversible change has occurred in the administration, as well as the country. Obama has become the president that he was elected to be. He slugged it out to win a bruising political victory for himself but greater equality and fairness for the US’ less well off too. There is a truly moving continuity of purpose that links 1862, 1964 and 2010.
Obama’s first year or so, exactly like Lincoln’s, has been characterized as consisting of disappointment, failed initiatives, false starts and what many regard as far too much deliberation. Americans of all colors and stripes were disgruntled. The Tea Party protest swelled with a strident, inchoate panic about un-American policies, a reflex that Lincoln and Johnson would both have recognized because this kind of allergic reaction was the measure of the changes they promulgated.
The presidency has a spring in its step, there is a halo of power that can only be won in battle and now suddenly the rest of the enormous canvas on which the modern US president operates seems broken with shafts of light that are as much because of the exercise of principle as because of intrigue and low politics.
Following his triumph on Sunday, Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) on Tuesday to discuss new settlements in east Jerusalem, which the administration has consistently opposed because they threaten progress on peace talks. Bibi didn’t give an inch on the settlements, so Obama left him to his own devices while he had dinner, which, according to one Israeli newspaper, was the sort of treatment reserved for the president of Equatorial New Guinea.
“I’m still around, let me know if there is anything new,” said the chief, the man who knows that at the last count Israel receives US$3 billion in aid annually from the US, to say little of military hardware, intelligence and diplomatic favors.
Did someone whisper the phrase “client state”? It certainly seemed so. Bibi and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak disappeared to their embassy muttering about insecure telephones.
Actually, the tough-minded Obama presidency has been coming into focus for a while now. Next month, 40 heads of state will attend a summit on nuclear security, one of Obama’s key areas of policy, which now opens with an agreement, patiently and coolly reached between Russia and the US on missile reduction. Former US president George W. Bush shot his mouth off, bombed and spent a long while doing nothing to tackle the great strategic issues. But Obama is moving with a steady gaze toward several big prizes, not all of which he is going to claim, but at least he knows what they are — “We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true.”
Last year, he met the Dalai Lama at the White House, causing the Chinese to have conniptions. There was a further chilling of relations on climate change, the US’ vast trade deficit with China, arms sales to Taiwan and a suspicion that China’s currency the renminbi — or people’s money — is undervalued to give China a trade advantage. This may harden into an accusation with next month’s US Treasury Department report on exchange rate practices.
Then there is Google’s commendable withdrawal from the Chinese mainland because of censorship, which is certainly in keeping with Obama’s stand on human rights in China. I mention this because while Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network in the US has been spewing out daily doses of mustard gas on the health bill, talking about freedom of choice and messy European socialism, another branch of Murdoch’s unlovely empire — MySpace China — happily complies with the censorship of a socialist state.
That kind of naked self-interest — and hypocrisy — suddenly seems so old-fashioned. There is a sense, too, that Republicans are chasing down some unfeasible evolutionary dead end and, although they may do well in the midterms next November, Obama is the one who will continue to make history.
There are some problems and doubts. Obama has committed to a project in Afghanistan which is probably not going to work and on the question of human rights, he has failed to find the solution to Guantanamo and has backed DNA testing on arrest in the US, which will ensure a racial bias in samples retained. I hate to say it but sometimes these blind spots, as well as the boldness, remind me of Blair.
US Senator Ted Kennedy wrote to Obama last May just before he died, telling him that he was sure that Obama would be the man to sign the healthcare bill, the political cause of Kennedy’s life, because Obama knew that at stake were “fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
Last week was US politics in all its grueling and imperfect magnificence. It’s good to remember that things can change for the better.
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