Mark Steyn: Obama's a better symbol than president
On Tuesday many Americans will vote for the two-dimensional Obama - the image, the idea.
In Tokyo last week, over 1,000 people signed a new petition asking the Japanese government to permit marriages between human beings and cartoon characters. "I am no longer interested in three dimensions. I would even like to become a resident of the two-dimensional world," explained Taichi Takashita. "Therefore, at the very least, would it be possible to legally authorize marriage with a two-dimensional character?"
Get back to me on that Tuesday night. We'll know by then whether an entire constitutional republic has decided to contract marriage with a two-dimensional character and to attempt to take up residence in the two-dimensional world. For many of his supporters, Barack Obama is an idea. He offers "hope, not fear." "Hope" of what? "Hope" of "change." OK, but "change" to what? Ah, well, there you go again, getting all hung up on three-dimensional reality, when we've moved way beyond that. I don't know which cartoon character Taichi Takashita is eyeing as his betrothed, but up in the sky Obamaman is flying high, fighting for Hope, Change and a kind of Post-Modern American Way.
The two-dimensional idea of President Obama is seductive: To elect a young black man of Kenyan extraction and Indonesian upbringing offers redemption both for America's original sin (slavery) and for the more recent perceived sins of President Bush – his supposed enthusiasm for sticking it to foreigners generally, and the Muslim world in particular. And no, I'm not saying he's Muslim. It's worse than that: He's a pasty-faced European – at least in his view of state power, welfare and taxation.
But, in a sense, he's not anything in particular, so much as everything in general. The media dispatched legions of reporters to hoot and jeer at Sarah Palin's Wasilla without ever wondering: Where would we go to do this to Obama? Where's his "hometown"? Bill Clinton was famously (if not entirely accurately) from "a place called Hope." Barack Obama is from an idea called hope. What's the area code? 1-800-HOPE4CHANGE. The 1-800 candidate offers the hope of electing a younger Morgan Freeman, the cool, reserved, dignified black man who, when he's not literally God walking among us (as in "Bruce Almighty"), is always the conscience of the movie.
You can understand the appeal of such an idea. Even if you're not hung up on white liberal guilt or Bush loathing, there's an urge to get it over with, to say, well, America should have a black president, and the sooner the better – i.e., the sooner we do it, the better it speaks of us. They have a point. I look at the roll call of the dead on 9/11: Arestegui, Bolourchi, Carstanjen, Droz, Elseth, Foti, Gronlund, Hannafin, Iskyan, Kuge, Laychak, Mojica, Nguyen, Ong, Pappalardo, Quigley, Retic, Shuyin, Tarrou, Vamsikrishna, Warchola, Yuguang, Zarba. Black, white, Scandinavian, Balkan, Arab, Asian – in a word, American. The presidential pantheon has a narrower ring: Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson. Obama has a tedious shtick about how his name sounds odd and he doesn't look like "all those other presidents on the dollar bills". He's not just picking out the drapes for the Oval Office, he's ordering up the new currency and booking the sculptors for Mount Rushmore.
And why not? Obama in the White House, Obama on the dollar bill, Obama on Rushmore would symbolize the possibilities of America more than that narrow list of white-bread protestant presidents to date.
The problem is we're not electing a symbol, a logo, a two-dimensional image. Long before he emerged on the national stage as Barack the Hope-Giver and Bringer of Change, there was a three-dimensional Barack Obama, a real man who lives in the real world. And that's where the problem lies.
The senator and his doting Obots in the media have gone to great lengths to obscure what Barack Obama does when he's not being a symbol: his voting record, his friends, his patrons, his life outside the soft-focus memoirs is deemed nonrelevant to the general hopey-changey vibe. But occasionally we get a glimpse. The offhand aside to Joe the Plumber about "spreading the wealth around" was revealing because it suggests a crude redistributive view of "social justice". Yet the nimble Hope-a-Dope sidestepper brushed it aside, telling a crowd in Raleigh that next John McCain will be "accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten."
But that too is revealing. As John Hood pointed out at National Review, communism is not "sharing." In a free society, the citizen chooses whether to share his Lego, trade it for some Thomas the Tank Engine train tracks, or keep it to himself. From that freedom of action grow mighty Playmobile cities. Communism is compulsion. It's the government confiscating your Elmo to "share" it with someone of its choice. Joe the Plumber is free to spread his own wealth around – hiring employees, buying supplies from local businesses, enjoying surf 'n' turf night at his favorite eatery. But, in Obama's world view, that's not good enough: the state is the best judge of how to spread Joe the Plumber's wealth around.
The Senator is a wealthy man, mainly on the strength of two bestselling books offering his biography in lieu of policy and accomplishments. Many lively members of his Kenyan family occur as supporting characters in his story and provide the vivid color in it. But they too are not merely two-dimensional cartoons. His Aunt Zeituni, a memorable figure in Obama's writing, turned up for real last week, when the dogged James Bone of the London Times tracked her down. She lives in a rundown housing project in Boston.
In his Wednesday night infomercial, Obama declared that his "fundamental belief" was that "I am my brother's keeper." Back in Kenya, his brother lives in a shack on 12 bucks a year. If Barack is his brother's keeper, why couldn't he send him a $10 bill and nearly double the guy's income? The reality is that Barack Obama assumes the government should be his brother's keeper, and his aunt's keeper. Why be surprised by that? For 20 years in Illinois, Obama has marinated in the swamps of the Chicago political machine and the campus radicalism of William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi. In such a world, the redistributive urge is more or less a minimum entry qualification.
The government as wealth-spreader-in-chief was not a slip of the tongue but consistent with Obama's life, friends and votes. The Obamacons – that's to say, conservatives hot for Barack – justify their decision to support a big-spending big-government Democrat with the most liberal voting record in the Senate by "hoping" that he doesn't mean it, by "hoping" that he'll "change" in office. "I sure hope Obama is more open, centrist, sensible," declared reformed conservative Ken Adelman, "than his liberal record indicates."
He's "hoping" that Obama will buck not just Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and the rest of the gang but also his voting record, his personal address book and his entire adult life. Good luck betting the future on that. The "change" we'll get isn't hard to discern: An expansion of government, an increase in taxes, a greater annexation of the dynamic part of the economy by the sclerotic bureaucracy, a reduction in economic liberty …oh, and a lot more Chicago machine politics.
On Tuesday many Americans will vote for the two-dimensional Obama - the image, the idea, the "hope." But it will be the three-dimensional Obama – the real man with the real record – that America will have to live with.