MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
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I’ve waited eagerly for the day after Election Day, to see what the story of Election 2012 would be. Every presidential winner has a story attached to his name. Sometimes the story is not so memorable. (What was the day-after-victory story of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush?). Often, though, the story told about an election outlives the direct influence of the president whose name is attached to it:
1960: John F. Kennedy: Youth and vigor can meet any challenge.
1968 and 1972: Richard Nixon: Law and order stem the tumult of “the ‘60s.”
1980 and 1984: Ronald Reagan: It’s morning in America as we shrink big government.
2004: George W. Bush: America must win the war on terror.
What about 2008, when the name of Barack Obama was indelibly linked to the words “hope and change”? Had Obama lost in 2012, his story probably would have been as forgotten as Carter’s or Bush 41’s.
But given Obama’s victory, the jury is still out, awaiting the verdict of history yet to be written.
In his bid for reelection, the president intentionally avoided any emphasis on the “hope and change” narrative. Focus groups showed that voters had “lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too,” as Ezra Klein reports.
Yet many observers, listening to the president’s 2012 victory speech, thought they heard powerful echoes of the “hope and change” story returning.
This time, though, the story is thicker because it’s linked to two themes that dominated Obama’s campaign rhetoric. One is the burned-once caution Klein notes, which showed up clearly in the victory speech: “As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts” because the work of self-government is always “hard and frustrating.”
The other new theme is economic inequality, the demand that the rich should pay a little bit more so that the middle class can survive, expand, and perhaps even thrive again. Nearly a year ago the president signaled that this would be the leitmotif of his campaign, in a speech in Osawatamie, Kansas.
As the campaign went on and the focus groups held sway, that theme was blurred by a host of others which looked like winners among crucial niche groups in crucial states. But the original leitmotif never disappeared.
It came back in a Washington Post story just days before the election, surely planted by the Obama campaign, that the president would demand higher taxes on the rich in the post-election bargaining as we approach the “fiscal cliff.”
And it came back in the victory speech, too. The president coupled “reducing our deficit” with “reforming out tax code.” He promised to “continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunities and new security for the middle class,” to “keep the promise of our founding,” that “you can make it here in America if you're willing to try.”
Obama put these economic promises in the same broader ideological context he had used since Osawatamie: “We are an American family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people. ... What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared. ... This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”
So “hope and change” now has a more specific meaning: Struggling against entrenched opposition to force the rich to act, at least a little bit, as if they had an obligation to care about the economic well-being of the rest of us.
Despite the Obama campaign’s efforts to blur and soften this narrative, there was no way -- and is no way -- that it can separated from the man. It remains the most obvious demarcation between the president and his challenger, who was widely perceived as the embodiment of the wealthy and their power and privileges.
This difference in narratives does not explain Obama’s victory. None of the influential voices in the mass media are saying that. Indeed, so many different explanations are being offered for Obama’s victory that no single story will emerge as “the story” of the day after Election Day, 2012. But history can attach a narrative to a president even if it does not judge that narrative to be the key to his electoral success.
History can also judge the narrative immensely successful regardless of the president’s policies. No one should expect Obama to make a serious dent in the power and privileges of the rich. His first term shows no evidence that he wants to do more than symbolically chip away at the edges of that power and privilege.
Yet symbolism is an immensely powerful force. Kennedy’s youthful vigor never solved his greatest challenge, Vietnam. But it helped give rise to the youth culture of the ‘60s. Nixon could not turn back all the changes the youth culture initiated. But his theme of “law and order” blunted the truly radical power of the ‘60s and paved the wave for Reaganism.
Reagan didn’t really shrink government. But he created a mythology that government is the problem, which still reigns in the House of Representatives today. George W. Bush’s war on terror led to fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan. But drones still kill innocent civilians by the scores because political reality demands that any president must “defeat terrorists.”
Regardless of his policies, if Obama is widely seen four years from now as a successful president, his story of shared destiny translated into greater economic equality will be remembered as the true meaning of “hope and change.” And it will take on a life of its own, exerting a powerful influence on American political life long after Barack Obama leaves the White House.