A few months ago, when the collapse in the mortgage industry began bringing down the major American banks, causing the stock market to collapse, and forcing the Government to put its hand in its pocket – or rather the pockets of its taxpayers – to bail out big business lest we dare tempt another Great Depression, someone who lives in the UK remarked that this all represented “the end of the American dream.” Perhaps, in a sense that millions of poor, hard-working Americans are having their homes repossessed, while the rest of us worry with great legitimacy whether we can pay our own mortgages in a rapidly shrinking economy, there is some truth to this. Then again, given the domino effect on other economies around the world, it’s turned out to be equally the death of the Icelandic dream – or the British one, to the extent that there is one. Capitalist greed, we should have understood all along, knows no boundaries.
Today, Tuesday January 20, on the other hand, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as President of the United States, and it’s impossible not to sense in this historic occasion – and the unprecedented excitement that it has generated – that the “American dream” remains alive and well, indeed that it is positively thriving. As another person I know from the UK has just remarked on his web site, “A black man from humble roots who seems to bring hope without sentimentality and has a remarkable flair for language, is taking the reins of the world’s most powerful democracy on what is a day that those Americans who have guarded the country’s founding spirit have long yearned for.” I couldn’t put it better myself.
These twin visions of the American dream, one in ruins, the other in ascension, are not unrelated. For, though I believe that Obama was always destined to become President, and that John McCain had equal opportunity to present himself as a more suitable leader (and failed), I don’t doubt that the extent of the economic mess contributed to his decisive victory.
I don’t think Obama doubts it either. In almost every speech he has given, and since long before November 4, he has talked about the enormous task that lies ahead in turning around the American economy (and with it, perhaps, that of the wider world) and the equally vast patience – and sacrifice – that it will require on behalf of the American people. His honesty, itself so rare in a politician, not only helped get him elected, but has made him more highly respected and popular coming into office; it’s as if the greater he downplays expectations, the higher they rise. American’s first black President, one of the youngest to take office too, is already being spoken of in terms of a Lincoln or an FDR, and that’s unfair. It’s tough enough that the man who represents the personal American Dream – the notion that anyone can rise from nothing to become anything, including but not limited to the Presidency itself – is charged with revitalizing the collective American Dream, and restoring the nation’s respectability in the eyes of the greater world. In such a scenario, you might ask yourself who would want to take on such a job? But then you would maybe have to accept that everyone has their role in life, and that somewhere along the line, Barack Obama appears to have accepted his – the fact that he has been given a unique array of abilities and talents by his maker, that he was born to this task.
Don’t get me wrong. Although that last sentence suggests a certain spiritual belief in Obama’s arrival at this particular place in history at this particular moment in time, I don’t see him as a savior, which means I don’t expect him to perform miracles. I am fully prepared for a painful honeymoon period. I know he’s taking over in tough times and that if we can learn anything from the past, it’s that things sometimes have to get much worse before they get any better. Nor do I harbor any false notion that Obama shares my own personal political priorities. (For that, Russell Simmons might have to run for office. Interviewed on NPR over the weekend, he asked that Obama focus on “prison reform, animal welfare, and meditation in schools.”) I admire Obama enormously for his willingness to bridge the political divide, to make peace with the opposition and to offer a major Cabinet position to his bitter campaign rival, and I just hope that his faith in these people turns out not to be misplaced. Over coming months and years, I imagine I will have occasion to be disappointed by him, in the same way that I am occasionally disappointed in my own family and friends. (To say nothing of the disappointment I frequently feel in myself.) Obama is a most remarkable man – more than anything, he’s clearly a good man, and that’s cause enough to be excited about his Presidency – but he’s only human.
And so, as we prepare to celebrate an occasion that, just a few years ago, seemed completely unthinkable, I’m going back to the word so many of us used during his campaign: hope. The Oxford English Dictionary offers several distinct definitions of that word, and every one of them applies to this man, at this hour. For if Barack Obama can become President of the United States, there’s hope for all of us. Especially, there’s hope for the American Dream, in whichever way you choose to define that term. And so, let me leave it here. Today, like so many millions in America and countless more across the world, I feel happiness and joy at being around to experience such a remarkable moment in history. But more than anything, I feel hope.
The quote about Barack Obama in the second paragraph up above comes from Billy Franks, a London-raised musician with whom I spent much time in the mid-80s, when he fronted his group Faith Brothers. Billy was so far to the left in those days that I worried he might fall off the edge of the world, but unlike most other British leftists of that era, he was never inherently anti-American. These days he spends half his time in the States, which might explain why he felt qualified to write a song entitled “50/50 America” in honor of Obama’s inauguration – and to make it available for free download as his own small contribution to the celebration. Like Bruce Springsteen singing about 9/11, Billy Franks prefers to avoid literal references in his lyrics. And so there is no reference to the man himself in “50/50 America,” though there is a line, “The black King came to Camelot,” and your ears may prick to the musical metaphor, “A hard rain’s gonna fall where strange fruit hung.” As Billy wrote about the U.S. in an e-mail, when I asked him for the lyrics to accompany the download, “I still find its enthusiasm far outweighs its obvious failings.” That’s how I feel too. You can listen to or download “50/50 America” here.