November 4, 2008

Have Champagne, Break the Glasses (But Keep a Couple of Aspirins at Hand)

The polls opened in Indiana a few minutes ago, and in about 18 hours (because of different time zones) they will close. My prediction is that we will know the result of this record-breaking presidential election early, maybe very early if Barack Obama wins where no Democratic candidate has won since 1964: Virginia e Indiana. The entire world should party all night, if the results will bring a close not only the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush, but the entire conservative cycle that began in Chicago in 1968. And the gift is even sweeter because the celebration will be in Chicago, propelled again to the center of national stage by a gifted politician who began his career not far from the same Grant Park where the police of then-mayor Richard J. Daley rioted while the "Entire world [was] watching." 
Therefore, tonight we should drink champagne, and break the glasses Russian-style, before going to bed, but tomorrow morning we shall take a couple of aspirins with the coffee, because formidable challenges lay ahead.

The greatest problem for the new administration will be the fact that, responding to the desire for change, Barack Obama implicitly promised to the  voters that he wants, and can, "wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch," as John Judis write in TNR a few months ago. Few columnists, however, have measured the implications of this promise today.
No Country can free itself from geography and history: this should be obvious in the U.S., as it is in the rest of the world from Lisbon to St.Petersburg, and from Tehran to Sidney. Unfortunately, the U.S. still thinks of itself as a Country with a "mission" to fulfill, nothing like the other, "normal" countries of the world. It is American exceptionalism that supplies the bedrock for the pretense of being able to "begin again from scratch" when needed.
American exceptionalism, as most ideologies, is an important resource for leaders who position themselves on its wavelength, and Barack Obama surfed it with grace this year. However, in time he is bound to disappoint his followers because promises based on ideology cannot be fulfilled. Leaders who capitalize on the desire for political change will disappoint supporters even more, because voters don't realize that the Founding Fathers did their best to prevent, or at least slow, any change.
Any political scientist, or historian, could tell citizens that separation of powers, checks and balances, and countermajoritarian institutions like the Supreme Court, were devised precisely to forbid changes, and to create a structure that will last for centuries. The authors of the Constitution were not optimistic about human nature, nor was Abraham Lincoln, who openly expressed his doubts concerning the political institutions born in Philadelphia in 1787: "Now," he said in his Gettysburg address, "we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." The Founding Fathers had only a modicum of faith in their fellow citizens, and ingeniously created a weak federal government that would not put Liberty in danger.
In time, the weak government grew strong but obstacles to its reform are as formidable today as they were in 1787 or in 1861. American Presidents cannot be tyrannical, but neither can they be efficient. Their appetite for reform inevitably clashes with lobbies, petty squabbles in the House, money interests in the Senate, and frank hostility in the Supreme Court. The Commander in Chief can easily invade a foreign country, but has trouble in giving health care to children.
Congress could, and would, pass legislation in order to give health care to children, but only if Big Pharma, American Doctors, and other relevant lobbies give their assent. Forty Republican senators will be enough to filibuster any proposal that would implement Obama's campaign promises. And both branches of Government will bow to a reactionary the Supreme Court that will not change its political bias for decades.
Magic moments come only once in a generation, and often they are a source of tragic disappointments when politicians like Bob Kennedy or Martin L. King pay the price of their commitment. Should Barack Obama become President on January 20, he would probably be a weak President, not because of a lack of character, or of political qualifications, but because the Constitution wants him (or anybody else) this way. Sure, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were strong leaders but even them were able to implement only a fraction of their ambitious agenda. One can only hope that Barack Obama will reveal his true self in office, a character more like the one of Abraham Lincoln than to those of Jimmy Carter's or Bill Clinton's.