Obama: Fairy tale or American exemplar?

I’m thrilled about Obama’s win in Iowa. I’m not as surprised as maybe I should be, reading the headlines, but maybe this is one of the advantages of being overseas, and not steeped in the daily horse-race reporting. From here, the story emerging after Obama’s win — that Democrats are more focused on the prospect of a complete and cleansing change than on the promise of competence — seems a bit obvious. Yet that’s simplistic, too. What Obama seems to have done is convince people in Iowa that in addition to being a genuinely new and healing force, he can still be a competent leader. More power to him, that’s what the country needs.

The coverage here is fascinating. I was a little shocked to read this in Der Spiegel, a magazine I ordinarily respect deeply.

But the Iowa snow king has scant hope of reaching the White House. He’s too young, too inexperienced, too vague, and for many Americans, too black. His magic words about the era of change, of hope, of an America he will unite — all that will evaporate like morning mist. …

Yesterday morning in my hotel, at the breakfast table next to mine, two sisters, perhaps six and eight years old, greeted each other with the following exchange. “Are you fired up?” said one. “Are you ready to go?” replied the other. That’s the battle cry of Obama’s supporters. Children love fairy tales.

Compare this to Arianna Huffington’s take:

Obama’s win might not have legs. Hope could give way to fear once again. But, for tonight at least, it holds a mirror up to the face of America, and we can look at ourselves with pride. This is the kind of country America was meant to be, even if you are for Clinton or Edwards — or even Huckabee or Giuliani.

It’s the kind of country we’ve always imagined ourselves being — even if in the last seven years we fell horribly short: a young country, an optimistic country, a forward-looking country, a country not afraid to take risks or to dream big.

Huffington’s right, I think, even if it’s a bit starry-eyed. A kind of optimistic political innocence is a defining American characteristic. It can go horribly wrong, as the Bush years have shown. But at least today, Americans still genuinely believe in — even expect, as in a Hollywood movie — healing and redemption after periods of darkness.

The Spiegel article rejects this idea. Obama represents the triumph of this innocence, and Americans are silly to believe in fairy tales, it argues. I think there’s more, too; America has screwed up so badly, so viciously, in ways with such awful consequences for the rest of the world, that it doesn’t deserve a healing process. And maybe there’s something to this. We voted Bush in twice, inflicting his ignorance and violence on the rest of the world; maybe it’s time we stopped believing in fairy tales.

But I think that’s a misreading of America. Voting for Obama is neither a rejection of our own history or a childlike misunderstanding of the difficulties of the future. It’s the expression of a people and place that for more than 200 years has been defined by constant self-reinvention. It’s an ugly spirit at times, when we not only refuse to admit our mistakes, but actually forget them. But genuine hope is not only a fairy tale. Sometimes healing happens.


  1. Of course, all of this is repeat of the Clinton I campaign. He was inexperienced, but he was from a little town called Hope. I remember voting for him — the first election I could vote — and telling my parents, it was the first time in America that I felt like we could all be better than who we were.

    Obama is really Clinton III. And that’s a good thing.

  2. Happy New Year, John!

    I totally agree with your post. I think Obama’s victory’s a big deal, and shows enough people in the U.S. realize how bad things have gotten that they’re willing to at least give serious consideration something completely different and better. I think Obama’s potential to be a “uniter” in a meaningful way far surpasses that of any national American politician in decades, if not in American history period.

  3. Not to be a dittohead, but yeah ditto, Gabor Steingart is way off base here (again) and apparently tone deaf to what America is about. I can understand why Europeans might be a little cynical about the American idea these days but, geez guys, we can (or must) change, really. Just you wait, Germans.

  4. i’m bemused by your ‘deep respect’ for spiegel, more so when one reads its reporting of america (and the so-called muslim world, and globalisation/economics). Spiegel seems overly cynical much of the time, without shedding much light on the motivations or idealism that drives so much politics outside of the sometimes haughty and narrow-minded disposition of the mag’s editorial mindset. In this respect, the fervent market liberalism of the economist compares much better, certainly when shining its light on the world beyond – it may be a jaundiced light but at least you can make out some details for yourself

  5. John Thanks!
    I thought it was a first time slip. But this is going now for months. It is really silly thing but it reviles the “German” angst of a well running and powerful USA.The USA is the opposite what Germany is in the mindset. A believe in opportunity for each and angst free optimism and the incredible positive power that comes from it. Germany is a society based on angst, cyncisim and deeply racial biased to it roots. Just a glance in the comments section of German papers and the statistics revils that. That all is the opposite of what Barack Obama, JFK and millions of Americans spirit stands for.Steingart of Spiegel Online is just feeding the minds of his German readers with the things they are comfortable with, at whatever cost. BTW: Spiegel Online is no more on my bookmarks/feeds.

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