Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters

Is Iraq Vietnam? Who really won in 2000? Which side are you on in the culture wars? These questions have divided the Baby Boomers and distorted our politics. One candidate could transcend them.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.

This latter point is the most salient. The act of picking the next president will be in some ways a statement of America’s view of Iraq. Clinton is running as a centrist Democrat—voting for war, accepting the need for an occupation at least through her first term, while attempting to do triage as practically as possible. Obama is running as the clearer antiwar candidate. At the same time, Obama’s candidacy cannot fairly be cast as a McGovernite revival in tone or substance. He is not opposed to war as such. He is not opposed to the use of unilateral force, either—as demonstrated by his willingness to target al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the objections of the Pakistani government. He does not oppose the idea of democratization in the Muslim world as a general principle or the concept of nation building as such. He is not an isolationist, as his support for the campaign in Afghanistan proves. It is worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October 2, 2002, five months before the war:

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war … I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is hemmed in by her past and her generation. If she pulls out too quickly, she will fall prey to the usual browbeating from the right—the same theme that has played relentlessly since 1968. If she stays in too long, the antiwar base of her own party, already suspicious of her, will pounce. The Boomer legacy imprisons her—and so it may continue to imprison us. The debate about the war in the next four years needs to be about the practical and difficult choices ahead of us—not about the symbolism or whether it’s a second Vietnam.

From the archives:

"Take Two" (November 2006)
How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player. By Joshua Green

A generational divide also separates Clinton and Obama with respect to domestic politics. Clinton grew up saturated in the conflict that still defines American politics. As a liberal, she has spent years in a defensive crouch against triumphant post-Reagan conservatism. The mau-mauing that greeted her health-care plan and the endless nightmares of her husband’s scandals drove her deeper into her political bunker. Her liberalism is warped by what you might call a Political Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Reagan spooked people on the left, especially those, like Clinton, who were interested primarily in winning power. She has internalized what most Democrats of her generation have internalized: They suspect that the majority is not with them, and so some quotient of discretion, fear, or plain deception is required if they are to advance their objectives. And so the less-adept ones seem deceptive, and the more-practiced ones, like Clinton, exhibit the plastic-ness and inauthenticity that still plague her candidacy. She’s hiding her true feelings. We know it, she knows we know it, and there is no way out of it.

Obama, simply by virtue of when he was born, is free of this defensiveness. Strictly speaking, he is at the tail end of the Boomer generation. But he is not of it.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Audio: Barack Obama Discusses the Baby Boomer Generation
Listen to an excerpt from Obama’s interview with Andrew Sullivan

“Partly because my mother, you know, was smack-dab in the middle of the Baby Boom generation,” he told me. “She was only 18 when she had me. So when I think of Baby Boomers, I think of my mother’s generation. And you know, I was too young for the formative period of the ’60s—civil rights, sexual revolution, Vietnam War. Those all sort of passed me by.”

Obama’s mother was, in fact, born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton. He did not politically come of age during the Vietnam era, and he is simply less afraid of the right wing than Clinton is, because he has emerged on the national stage during a period of conservative decadence and decline. And so, for example, he felt much freer than Clinton to say he was prepared to meet and hold talks with hostile world leaders in his first year in office. He has proposed sweeping middle-class tax cuts and opposed drastic reforms of Social Security, without being tarred as a fiscally reckless liberal. (Of course, such accusations are hard to make after the fiscal performance of today’s “conservatives.”) Even his more conservative positions—like his openness to bombing Pakistan, or his support for merit pay for public-school teachers—do not appear to emerge from a desire or need to credentialize himself with the right. He is among the first Democrats in a generation not to be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe, which also gives them more freedom to move pragmatically to the right, if necessary. He does not smell, as Clinton does, of political fear.

There are few areas where this Democratic fear is more intense than religion. The crude exploitation of sectarian loyalty and religious zeal by Bush and Rove succeeded in deepening the culture war, to Republican advantage. Again, this played into the divide of the Boomer years—between God-fearing Americans and the peacenik atheist hippies of lore. The Democrats have responded by pretending to a public religiosity that still seems strained. Listening to Hillary Clinton detail her prayer life in public, as she did last spring to a packed house at George Washington University, was at once poignant and repellent. Poignant because her faith may well be genuine; repellent because its Methodist genuineness demands that she not profess it so tackily. But she did. The polls told her to.

Obama, in contrast, opened his soul up in public long before any focus group demanded it. His first book, Dreams From My Father, is a candid, haunting, and supple piece of writing. It was not concocted to solve a political problem (his second, hackneyed book, The Audacity of Hope, filled that niche). It was a genuine display of internal doubt and conflict and sadness. And it reveals Obama as someone whose “complex fate,” to use Ralph Ellison’s term, is to be both believer and doubter, in a world where such complexity is as beleaguered as it is necessary.

This struggle to embrace modernity without abandoning faith falls on one of the fault lines in the modern world. It is arguably the critical fault line, the tectonic rift that is advancing the bloody borders of Islam and the increasingly sectarian boundaries of American politics. As humankind abandons the secular totalitarianisms of the last century and grapples with breakneck technological and scientific discoveries, the appeal of absolutist faith is powerful in both developing and developed countries. It is the latest in a long line of rebukes to liberal modernity—but this rebuke has the deepest roots, the widest appeal, and the attraction that all total solutions to the human predicament proffer. From the doctrinal absolutism of Pope Benedict’s Vatican to the revival of fundamentalist Protestantism in the U.S. and Asia to the attraction for many Muslims of the most extreme and antimodern forms of Islam, the same phenomenon has spread to every culture and place.

You cannot confront the complex challenges of domestic or foreign policy today unless you understand this gulf and its seriousness. You cannot lead the United States without having a foot in both the religious and secular camps. This, surely, is where Bush has failed most profoundly. By aligning himself with the most extreme and basic of religious orientations, he has lost many moderate believers and alienated the secular and agnostic in the West. If you cannot bring the agnostics along in a campaign against religious terrorism, you have a problem.

Here again, Obama, by virtue of generation and accident, bridges this deepening divide. He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” he explained to me. “What I really did was to take a set of values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists—you know, belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility—those kinds of values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a belief in redemption and mercy and justice … I guess the point is, it continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this issue of faith.”

Presented by

Andrew Sullivan, one of the world's most widely read bloggers, is a former Atlantic senior editor, a political commentator, and the author of five books. More

Andrew Sullivan was born in August 1963 in a small town in southern England. He attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a first in modern history and modern languages. He was also president of the Oxford Union in his second year at college and spent his summer vacations as an actor in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

 

In 1984, he won a Harkness Fellowship to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In his summers, he interned as an editorial writer at The Daily Telegraph in London, and at the Centre For Policy Studies, Margaret Thatcher's informal think tank, where he wrote a policy paper on the environment, called "Greening The Tories." At Harvard, he was best known for acting, appearing as the title character in Hamlet, Alan in Peter Shaffer's Equus, and Mozart in Shaffer's Amadeus.

In the summer of 1986, after completing his master's degree in public administration, Andrew interned at The New Republic and wrote his first article for the magazine on the cult of bodybuilding. He then returned to Harvard to start a Ph.D. in political science. His doctoral thesis, "Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott," won the government department prize. In 1990, he returned to Washington, D.C., where he freelanced for The Telegraph and started a monthly column for Esquire. He was soon back at The New Republic as deputy editor under Hendrik Hertzberg, and in June of 1991, at the age of 27, was appointed acting editor. In October, he took over as editor, and presided over 250 issues of The New Republic. In those years, The New Republic's circulation grew to well over 100,000 and its advertising revenues grew by 76 percent. The magazine also won three National Magazine Awards for General Excellence, Reporting, and Public Interest. The first two awards overlapped with Rick Hertzberg's tenure at the magazine. In 1996, his final year at the magazine, Sullivan was named Editor of the Year by Adweek.

In the early 1990s, Sullivan became known for being openly homosexual, and for championing such issues as gays in the military and same-sex marriage. His 1995 book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, became one of the best-selling books on gay rights and was translated into five languages. He followed it with a reader, Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, and testified before Congress on the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. His 1998 book, Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival, was a synthesis of three essays on the plague of AIDS, homosexuality and psycho-therapy, and the virtue of friendship. Sullivan tested positive for HIV in 1993 and remains in good health.

In the late 1990s, Sullivan worked as a contributing writer and columnist for The New York Times Magazine, a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, and a weekly columnist for The Sunday Times of London. His 2000 New York Times Magazine cover story on testosterone, "Why Men Are Different," provoked a flurry of controversy, as well as a cover-story in Time and a documentary on the Discovery channel. Since 2002, Sullivan has been a columnist for Time Magazine and a regular guest on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher and NBC's Chris Matthews Show.

In the summer of 2000, Sullivan became one of the first mainstream journalists to experiment with blogging and soon developed a large online readership with andrewsullivan.com's Daily Dish. Andrew blogged independently and for Time.com and, in February 2007, moved his blog to TheAtlantic.com (archives here), where he was a senior editor for the magazine. In April 2010, Andrew moved to TheDailyBeast.com.
 

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