Sated Expectations

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Witnessing one of the most momentous American presidential inaugurations in history and finding one’s self less enthusiastic than nearly everyone else (at least those showcased on television), can be puzzling.

Why does the imminent inauguration of the nation’s first African American president fail to excite the author?

Why does the impending assumption of the presidency by a man equally composed and elegant fail to reassure this citizen amidst a time of great economic upheaval?

As far as causes go, the avalanche of media-generated hype is a prime candidate for this ambivalence. Dwarfing the sanction bestowed on Obama before the election, the American media has dropped all pretense and has virtually anointed Obama the Republic’s savior before he has even assumed office. Magazine covers have caricatured him as a latter-day FDR, have emphasized his potential to be the country’s greatest president, and article after article acknowledges the expectations are insurmountable, while assuring the reader Obama has surely shown the potential to surpass them.

The concert at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday featured a cavalcade of millionaire rock stars and actors finally finding time to find something to love about America. The concert’s theme was “We Are One,” even though the Democratic Party was evenly split on Obama versus Hillary and the nation went 53-47 on Obama versus McCain. Throw in the mindlessness of the inane celebrity-oriented media venues and a measure of revulsion at the spectacle is merited. (Of course, this being America, Obama fetishists are more than free to indulge their fervor. Newfound enthusiasm for the occasion of a president’s inauguration, an integral ceremony in this nation’s democracy, is welcomed, grudgingly.)

As an immediate statement of self-defense, the lack of enthusiasm should not be interpreted as a lack of respect. Barack Obama’s historic political achievement cannot be diminished. The astonishing victory over his party’s seemingly invulnerable frontrunner followed then by his convincing general election win over a national hero, all within four years of his national debut, defied all expectations and will be recorded with adulation in presidential election history.

Nor should this lack of enthusiasm be discounted as the result of ideological blinders. Initially, Obama’s strident liberalism left many conservatives apprehensive, but the combination of Bush Administration ineptitude and the McCain campaign’s missteps also left many conservatives convinced an Obama victory, while unwelcome, would not be unearned.1

Indeed, Obama's triumph provides a healthy opportunity for American conservatives. American conservatives can finally abandon the role of wrecking ball opposition and resume the respectable task of constructive and loyal opposition.

Going back to the 1950s, conservatives have asserted their principled opposition to the modern American embrace of paternalistic government. However, the immediate menace posed by Soviet communism induced tolerance for the ridiculous excesses of a demagogue like Joseph McCarthy. Afterward, the ensuing cultural wars of the 1960s coarsened political discourse; liberals preached "the personal is political" and conservatives accepted the premise, choosing to wage political combat as personal warfare. The consequence was the increasing currency of personal attacks as a substitute for principled debate. Liberals are equally guilty, but Obama's arrival presents the opportunity to close out this period.

Furthermore, Obama's election and inaguaration will mark a departure in racial and generational terms. As a frontrunning African-American, Obama compelled other candidates to temper their impulse to attack him personally and to restrain (and sometimes lament) their more rapid supporters. Mercifully, Obama's opponent was John McCain, an honorable politician loathe to traffic in more outrageous charges. (Cries of "closet socialist" didn't constitute outrageous personal attacks as much as they were the desperate act of a faltering campaign. Being part of a purportedly fiscal conservative party that condoned scandalous deficits and nationalization of the banking industry left McCain with only so many Hail Mary plays.)

As a member of Generation X, Obama will move America beyond the "psychodrama" of the Baby Boomer generation, not just politically but atmospherically as well. The Clintonian embrace of the permanent campaign and Gingrichian demonization of political opponents are poised to fade. Obama has pioneered citizen mobilization on the Web and re-established the potency of political oratory. A conservative revival will depend (in part) on corresponding countermeasures - adapting the once formidable institutions of the conservative movement to the 21st century and rediscovering the art of rhetoric.

But more importantly, Obama's arrival heralds the arrival of a generation that has adopted the best arguments of both conservatism and liberalism. Having witnessed the worst examples of their excesses, Generation Xers reject the self-righteous hectoring and posturing of ideologically conflicted Baby Boomers and are ready to accept the responsibility of leading the country with only an eye for the bottom line.

When Obama recounted his decision to run, even though a first-term Senator, he cited Martin Luther King's words describing the "fierce urgency of now." Unexplained is whether the urgency he felt was incumbent him as an African-American or a newly arrived lawmaker with a vision for the country. While he may not clarify the matter in the near future, his campaign one was notably devoid of racial grievance and enthusiastically permeated with the bottom line message of change, leaving one confident the noxious stridency of victimization politics will soon become a relic.

Generation X, assuming power in the form of the nation's first biracial president, no longer needs lectures on diversity, tolerance, or the importance of hard work and personal responsibility. Generation X is (famously) already the
most diversified, most tolerant, most meritocratic generation in history.

Indeed, this is the source of the author's mystification.

When many established figures and commentators (mostly Boomers) ask each other, "Did you ever think you would see an African American elected," this Generation Xer had a ready answer -- yes. Where Boomers see history, Generation X see the future. For Boomers, Obama marks the culmination of their grand but ultimately alienating crusades; for Generation Xers, Obama marks the beginning of modest but potentially resuscitative politics.

The first hints of Obama's Inaugural Address suggest a theme of "responsibility." After decades of the Baby Boom generation leaving only wreckage in their wake, an appeal to responsibility is a welcome one.

May God Bless America's Newly Inaugurated President,
Barack Hussein Obama

1 Obama did not conceal his liberal intentions; imagining a defeated Obama lamenting how he had held back from campaigning on his true beliefs (like Gore or Kerry) is difficult. Conservatives can accept defeat when the loss is to a principled foe; consider how bitterness in the political environment would have persisted if Clinton had won.


ConnectingTheDots said...

Well-written piece. But Obama is not an Xer. As many nationally influential voices have repeatedly noted, Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X. Google Generation Jones, and you'll see it’s gotten a lot of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (New York Times, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) are specifically referring to Obama, born in 1961, as part of Generation Jones.

Robert Jordan Prescott said...

CTD: Thanks for taking time to read my last minute essay. Acknowledged, you are now the second reader to note Obama is GenJones, not GenX (and thankfully more thoughtfully). I am now familiar with the GenJones construct but note the following:

1) J. Pontell, the creator of the GenJones concept, apparently conceived the notion between 1997 and 2001 (; my preferred source for demographic and generational discussions is Howe and Strauss's "13th Gen" which was published in 1993. Moreover, Coupland coined the GenX term in 1991; yes he's Canadian, but he conceived it in America and received critical acclaim in the US.

2) The GenJones notion has been applied to nations other than the US; I'd hesitate to apply any American demographic construct to another country, even one as close as the UK. Yes, Coupland coined the GenX term and he's Canadian, but he conceived it in America and received critical acclaim in the US.

Ultimately though, I continue to learn about GenJones and appreciate your reminder of its currency.