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.
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The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics. It has little to do with Obama’s considerable skills as a conciliator, legislator, or even thinker. It has even less to do with his ideological pedigree or legal background or rhetorical skills. Yes, as the many profiles prove, he has considerable intelligence and not a little guile. But so do others, not least his formidably polished and practiced opponent Senator Hillary Clinton.

Obama, moreover, is no saint. He has flaws and tics: Often tired, sometimes crabby, intermittently solipsistic, he’s a surprisingly uneven campaigner.

Also see:
Interviews: "Containing Multitudes" (November 6, 2007)
Andrew Sullivan speaks candidly about why he supports Barack Obama, how he became a blogger, and why he's not afraid to change his mind.

Audio: "Barack Obama on the Baby Boom Generation"
Listen to an excerpt from his interview with Andrew Sullivan. (Audio player will pop up in a new window.)

Interviews: "Obama and America" (November 6, 2007)
Listen to a podcast of Andrew Sullivan's discussion with Tom Ashbrook on NPR's On Point.

A soaring rhetorical flourish one day is undercut by a lackluster debate performance the next. He is certainly not without self-regard. He has more experience in public life than his opponents want to acknowledge, but he has not spent much time in Washington and has never run a business. His lean physique, close-cropped hair, and stick-out ears can give the impression of a slightly pushy undergraduate. You can see why many of his friends and admirers have urged him to wait his turn. He could be president in five or nine years’ time—why the rush?

But he knows, and privately acknowledges, that the fundamental point of his candidacy is that it is happening now. In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

The traces of our long journey to this juncture can be found all around us. Its most obvious manifestation is political rhetoric. The high temperature—Bill O’Reilly’s nightly screeds against anti-Americans on one channel, Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” on the other; MoveOn.org’s “General Betray Us” on the one side, Ann Coulter’s Treason on the other; Michael Moore’s accusation of treason at the core of the Iraq War, Sean Hannity’s assertion of treason in the opposition to it—is particularly striking when you examine the generally minor policy choices on the table. Something deeper and more powerful than the actual decisions we face is driving the tone of the debate.

Take the biggest foreign-policy question—the war in Iraq. The rhetoric ranges from John McCain’s “No Surrender” banner to the “End the War Now” absolutism of much of the Democratic base. Yet the substantive issue is almost comically removed from this hyperventilation. Every potential president, Republican or Democrat, would likely inherit more than 100,000 occupying troops in January 2009; every one would be attempting to redeploy them as prudently as possible and to build stronger alliances both in the region and in the world. Every major candidate, moreover, will pledge to use targeted military force against al-Qaeda if necessary; every one is committed to ensuring that Iran will not have a nuclear bomb; every one is committed to an open-ended deployment in Afghanistan and an unbending alliance with Israel. We are fighting over something, to be sure. But it is more a fight over how we define ourselves and over long-term goals than over what is practically to be done on the ground.

On domestic policy, the primary issue is health care. Again, the ferocious rhetoric belies the mundane reality. Between the boogeyman of “Big Government” and the alleged threat of the drug companies, the practical differences are more matters of nuance than ideology. Yes, there are policy disagreements, but in the wake of the Bush administration, they are underwhelming. Most Republicans support continuing the Medicare drug benefit for seniors, the largest expansion of the entitlement state since Lyndon Johnson, while Democrats are merely favoring more cost controls on drug and insurance companies. Between Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan—individual mandates, private-sector leadership—and Senator Clinton’s triangulated update of her 1994 debacle, the difference is more technical than fundamental. The country has moved ever so slightly leftward. But this again is less a function of ideological transformation than of the current system’s failure to provide affordable health care for the insured or any care at all for growing numbers of the working poor.

From the archives:

"The Day After Roe" (June 2006)
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, it will set off tectonic shifts in the American political landscape not seen since the civil-rights movement—or perhaps even the Civil War. By Jeffrey Rosen

Even on issues that are seen as integral to the polarization, the practical stakes in this election are minor. A large consensus in America favors legal abortions during the first trimester and varying restrictions thereafter. Even in solidly red states, such as South Dakota, the support for total criminalization is weak. If Roe were to fall, the primary impact would be the end of a system more liberal than any in Europe in favor of one more in sync with the varied views that exist across this country. On marriage, the battles in the states are subsiding, as a bevy of blue states adopt either civil marriage or civil unions for gay couples, and the rest stand pat. Most states that want no recognition for same-sex couples have already made that decision, usually through state constitutional amendments that allow change only with extreme difficulty. And the one state where marriage equality exists, Massachusetts, has decided to maintain the reform indefinitely.

Given this quiet, evolving consensus on policy, how do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics? The answer lies mainly with the biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers. The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.

The professionalization of the battle, and the emergence of an array of well-funded interest groups dedicated to continuing it, can be traced most proximately to the bitter confirmation fights over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, in 1987 and 1991 respectively. The presidency of Bill Clinton, who was elected with only 43 percent of the vote in 1992, crystallized the new reality. As soon as the Baby Boomers hit the commanding heights, the Vietnam power struggle rebooted. The facts mattered little in the face of such a divide. While Clinton was substantively a moderate conservative in policy, his countercultural origins led to the drama, ultimately, of religious warfare and even impeachment. Clinton clearly tried to bridge the Boomer split. But he was trapped on one side of it—and his personal foibles only reignited his generation’s agonies over sex and love and marriage. Even the failed impeachment didn’t bring the two sides to their senses, and the election of 2000 only made matters worse: Gore and Bush were almost designed to reflect the Boomers’ and the country’s divide, which deepened further.

The trauma of 9/11 has tended to obscure the memory of that unprecedentedly bitter election, and its nail- biting aftermath, which verged on a constitutional crisis. But its legacy is very much still with us, made far worse by President Bush’s approach to dealing with it. Despite losing the popular vote, Bush governed as if he had won Reagan’s 49 states. Instead of cementing a coalition of the center-right, Bush and Rove set out to ensure that the new evangelical base of the Republicans would turn out more reliably in 2004. Instead of seeing the post-’60s divide as a wound to be healed, they poured acid on it.

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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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