Let me start by saying that I’m very happy that Obama won over McCain, and I think it’s wonderful that so many people were compelled into action on behalf of their country. It’s also inspiring to see Democracy in action, an entire country throwing out a set of leaders without a drop of blood spilled. I’m looking forward to seeing what Obama will do, and more importantly, what he’ll ask of us.
But as you might expect, I’m also a lot less excited about this than other people who wanted to see McCain lose.Â The cult of personality that has sprung up around Obama among young people worries me, and I’m not sure it bodes well. For a group of people who hold religious zealots in such contempt, when Obama supporters gather it makes Baptist revivals look rational and sober.Â The students at Harvard were beside themselves last night, running around screaming and chanting his name. (One undergrad dislocated her knee during the ensuing revelry.) It was a bit scary, seeingÂ Cambridge turn into Caracas during a Chavez rally.
That’s not the kind of country we are supposed to be. We don’t worship our leaders in America, we tolerate them. We don’t chant the name of our next president, we start making fun of him on SNL before he’s even in office. We don’t expect miracles of change to come through leaders, we expect progress to come from us and for our policians to get out of the way.
Obama will come to power, and inevitably not that much will really change. Of that I’m certain. It’s always that way. We have a campaign, and with all the focus-grouped advertising and inspiring speeches, we forget that a president can’t magically create jobs, or make oil cheaper, or reduce the cost of healthcare. The presidency is a small rudder on a huge boat. You can hold up a million signs that say Change, but when you put them in the water, they don’t do much to move a ship like America. The government can shift money around, and can turn insurance premiums into taxes, but it can’t change the great forces at work in the world. It can’t stop the fact that Chinese workers are 100 times cheaper than American labor, it can’t make the banks start lending again, and it can’t make MRI’s suddenly affordable. It can’t magically fix underperforming schools, or rejuvenate inner cities beset by crime.
I’m not suggesting nothing will get done. Policy certainly matters, and in the short term the government can be greatly effective in shifting burdens around. But I am saying that whatever will happen, it most certainly is not worth getting this excited about it. If America is to prevail over its problems, it will require ugly solutions, hard work, brutal sacrifice, a bit of luck, and a lot of time. It won’t come from jawboning about change and patting ourselves on the back for finally electing a guy who can put together a sentence.
I hope that I’m wrong, and that last night’s orgy of self-congratulation was just the relief of a long eight years finally being over. I hope that there hasn’t been a shift in the national cultural skepticism about politicians and the role of government. In my mind, nothing will bring about our failure quicker than the idea that our success lies in the hands of our politicians.