The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

Barack In A Weary Land

In 2000, a clinical designation for a hangover was coined: veisalgia. Derived from the Norwegian word kveis (uneasiness after debuachery) and the Greek root -algia (pain, grief), the word came just in time for the Bush presidency and, two terms later, it was nice to be able to diagnose the sickness of a nation whose moral authority, global standing, and economic health had come off the rails. America was suffering from a chronic bout of veisalgia.

For centuries man has searched for the cure to this ugly, self-induced trauma. Water, sports drinks, greasy breakfasts, prickly pears found beside cactii in the desert, tripe soup—anything that could make it go away. But what we’ve realized after centuries of trial and error is that while some things can help a hangover pass, there is no real solution. All one can do is wait.

But time waits for no American. This is a society of now, no really, right now. Not surprisingly, by 2008, America seemingly could take no more of its debauched political and economic environments. And, for millions of its citizens, filled with shame and nausea from a party that had gotten wildly out of hand, the only choice was to deal with it by the hair of the dog. As a stumbling linguist who claimed to be a recovering alcoholic was staggering out of the Oval Office, many were enthralled by a magical last call, the spectacular and historic election of the nation’s first black president, one where you’d have to have been blind drunk to believe the rhetoric that was hurled your way for months and months.

America had been on a Hall of Fame worthy bender, a debauched and depraved rape and pillage of itself, its friends, and its enemies. The party lasted years, and affirmation was its cocaine. “Yes We Can” was not just an effective slogan, it had been the mentality of the scum that drank this country into a complete stupor. Credit America for going full bore. Half-assed is about as un-American as you can get. “Yes We Can” is not a liberal creed, it is the motto of a deluded populace. Yes We Can increase spending while cutting taxes. Yes We Can bleed the working poor dry. Yes We Can conduct illegal wars while retaining our status as the moral beacon of the universe. We can have it all! “Yes We Can” was the cry in the night of a people whom, frightened to face a dire reality, chose to bludgeon it with their weighty illusion. So who could have been surprised that these revelers topped up as the finish line rapidly approached? Many had come to assume that although we hadn’t figured it out yet, we’d be able to fly by the time we came face to face with gravity. The real economy, the illusory economy, the commodities market, the housing market, the balance of power, global diplomacy, everything we could get our hands on, was in disrepair. We were experiencing a loss of inhibitions, dammit! But, mercifully, the blackout was coming.

All of this led to the almost fantastical night of November 4, 2008. In Chicago’s Grant Park, everything somehow still seemed possible. But once again, this permutation of the American Dream had nothing to do with the American Reality. But believe it millions did, change, hope, all that. These were the Happy Times! But they could not hold, for they held no actual weight. They were a mirage of wishes and delusions from all sides, all projected onto a candidate all too ready to enjoy the moment. And who could blame him? That moment might be all he gets. President Obama looked far too real for a nation battling uneasiness after debauchery, pain, grief—veisalgia. But soon enough, bubbles of all sorts burst with astonishing speed and force, and we were left with no choice but to nurse the Great American Hangover.

In many ways, what was dreamed to be a progressive, healing presidency has been one primarily of damage control. While Bush repulsed many Americans by reveling in the excesses of presidential power, for most of his term Mr. Obama confounded many of his fans by illustrating the limits of it. With overlapping economic, political, social, and military crises coming home to roost, Mr. Obama seemed to sacrifice much of the liberal idealism upon which he gained support and adoration. There is little sexy about the man’s first go round, and often he has been reduced into praising himself by hypothesizing just how bad things would have been if the steps he took weren’t taken. Unemployment would have been that much higher, this many millions of people would still have no path to health insurance, the banking system would have been even more corrupted, the auto industry would have been irreparably destroyed, Osama Bin Laden would still be alive. Running on this series of unknowable potentialities is hardly a way to inspire the masses. And so, tasked with getting re-elected, Mr. Obama has chosen to articulate the problems of the Republican Party more so than the solutions presented by the Democrats. The strategy is to remind his base what is at stake if he loses, rather than what is possible if he wins. Not “Change We Can Believe In,” but “Change We Don’t Believe In.” There is nothing original about this plan, and it’s one that has been used by many incumbents before him. But for some, it seems beneath him, and an articulation of how he has failed to deliver whatever it was that his base thought he had promised.

Much has been said and written about whether people will rally behind Obama, whether he’ll find the same enthusiasm from his volunteers, the same drive to make sure he gets a second term. For many, the disappointment centers around what they view as a watered-down healthcare reform, an inability to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the rich, a foreign policy that has for them not changed enough, and a desperate desire to negotiate with opponents who seem more interested in grinding the levers of power to a halt than creating anything approaching workable legislation. While feeling somewhat let down by President Obama is not entirely unreasonable for those of a certain political persuasion, the real question is: What should they do now? If a system is so broken that Mr. Obama’s election was less the beginning of a movement and more a feeting endorphin-releasing moment, does it make sense to bail out, to refuse to lend legitimacy to a process that many on the left feel excluded from?

The answer, for them, is a frustrating, maybe even begrudging, no. It may be depressing to realize, but the truth is that this mangled framework is still the one that creates the power and the policy. Conflating the two parties may not be altogether unfair from some macro perspectives, but it is still dangerous and false at an important micro level. The Republican primary season has done enough to reveal that there still are things at stake, even if they are things to protect rather than ways to evolve. The danger to women’s health will increase with more Republican power. A draconian and narrow-minded foreign policy will only get worse with Romney in the Oval Office. An unfair system of taxation will be exacerbated. The attacks on government programs will move beyond rhetoric and into reality. With Obama, even if the results of his first term are not what some wished for, these and other regressions are avoidable. This is an unfortunate, defeatist brand of politics, but it may just be the only viable option. Beyond that, much is of course unknown. What does a second-term Barack Obama look like? What can he do? What does he want to do? For those who wanted more from him, there is no reason to leave him now. The best option is to, even if somewhat ironically, hope. If that fails, reach for the bottle.


Michael Terry


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues