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October 2, 2008

Why Obama, by Peter Trachtenberg

Why Obama is a series of guest essays by musicians and authors, where they share their support for Democratic United States presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama and offer arguments why he needs to be elected president of the United States.

Peter Trachtenberg’s most recent book is The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning. He is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing program of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

In his own words, here is Peter Trachtenberg's Why Obama essay :

Let me make it plain from the outset that Barack Obama is a politician. That I know Barack Obama is a politician. He has the same drives that motivate other politicians, and probably most of the same flaws. What first set him apart from the other politicians he was running against, Denis Kucinich and Ron Paul aside, was that he opposed the Iraq war. He opposed it from the beginning, and with that alone he demonstrated that he had a more active moral barometer and a more finely tuned bullshit detector than most of his opponents.

Still, in spite of that, for a while I didn’t much care if the nomination went to Barack or Hilary. Once Ms. Clinton came to her senses on Iraq, their positions weren’t that far apart, and the very high-mindedness that had first drawn me to Obama sometimes seemed too good to be true. His insistence on seeing complexity might be admirable in the classroom, but it would be suicidal in a campaign, where the wielder of the biggest, bluntest simplicities almost always wins. He was too cool, too cerebral, too equivocal, too—otherworldly. He was David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and anyone who’s seen that movie knows that at its end the alien messiah has become a listless, discredited drunk who can’t even find his way back to the world he wanted to save.

But the thing is, Obama won the nomination. He won even after Clinton reinvented herself as a cross between Norma Jean and the Terminator, even after the press had begun to get tired of him, even after Maureen Dowd had caricatured him as Obambi. He won after the Muslim rumors; he won after Reverend Wright. He won because along with being a policy wonk (not even both Clintons together had been able to put together a national health plan and account for every dollar of its cost) he’s also a political animal who can appeal to a wide variety of constituencies without seeming to pander to them: white folks in rural Iowa and African-Americans in Mississippi, college kids in Oregon, garmentos in New York. Don’t be surprised if he finds a way to repair bridges with bitter gun-enthusiasts in the Rust Belt. Along with being high-minded, he’s hard-headed. His hard-headedness is sometimes concealed by his civility or eclipsed by the radiance of his beliefs. It’s the beliefs, and the eloquence with which he voices them, that have made so many people fall in love with him, that famous, abject Obamaphilia that embarrasses me and makes smoke jet from Republican ears. (What presidential candidate before him has been attacked for being too popular?) But what distinguishes a leader from a prophet is the former’s ability to make beliefs come to fruition. It’s the difference between dreaming of flying and building an airplane.

Of course other politicians have beliefs, too. Most of them believe in their own greatness. I suspect Obama believes in his, too. He’s running for president. But, clearly, he also believes in other, larger things, including the greatness, magnanimity, and fundamental reasonableness of the American people. What a radical assumption that is, seven years into the blood-feast, train-wreck presidency of George W. Bush. To believe that we might be motivated by something besides fear of terrorists and rage at gay marriages and undocumented aliens. To believe that we might become glutted with baseless wars and sick of living in strife with the rest of the world, in strife with reality itself: It was one of Bush’s advisors who spoke contemptuously of the “reality-based community.” Obama’s entire run is based on that gamble, that Americans are better than their previous choice of leaders would suggest they are.

Everyone sees politics through the lens of his particular experience. People who drive for a living think about gas prices. I suppose my lens is suffering, since it’s what I wrote about in my latest book. Many of the people I profiled fell victim to disasters that no government could do much about: the tsunami of December 26, 2004, for instance, or a rare and terrible disease called epidermolysis bullosa that turns the brief lives of its sufferers into a hell of disfigurement and pain. Others, however, suffered in part because of the callousness and ineptness of their leaders. I’m thinking of a couple whose son was killed in the second plane that struck the World Trade Center and who watched in numb incredulity as the Bush administration used his murder as political capital. I’m thinking of some of the people I met after Hurricane Katrina, the ones who’d sat for days without food or water in the stink and chaos of the Superdome while the president pretended to play a guitar for the amusement of news reporters.

Who can say whether Barack Obama would have been able to prevent the attacks of 9/11? (He probably would have done more than shrug after reading a security memo speculating that Osama bin Laden was planning to use airliners as flying bombs.) He couldn’t have kept Katrina from hitting the Gulf Coast. But every choice he has made in his public life so far, beginning with his choice to work as an ill-paid community organizer after graduating from college, suggests that he would have taken a less cavalier attitude toward the victims of those catastrophes. As a community organizer, he saw the victims of other catastrophes every day, slower and less visible ones that nevertheless kill their victims. His job was trying to help them. Everything I’ve read of Obama’s principles suggests that he views the task of government as helping ordinary people, particularly those who lack other recourse. His opponent seems to view government’s job as turning a blind eye while the rich and ambitious cut to the head of the banquet line. It pays to remember that while New Orleans was drowning, John McCain was in Phoenix celebrating his birthday with President Bush, who had brought along a cake for him.

Peter Trachtenberg links:

Peter Trachtenberg's website

Barack Obama link:

Barack Obama presidential campaign website

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Why Obama essays
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews