Watching Obama’s first press conference since the election, live on CNN yesterday, was an experience. Instead of just walking on like the big cheese and standing alone at the lectern, he first of all sent out his new team, who arranged themselves across the back of the stage like some dark-suited choir. How clever is that? Firstly - here’s the whole group of people who are going to be running this country quite soon, and secondly, here am I, their spokesperson and leader, certainly, but also a team player.
He invited questions from the gathering by calling out the names of the journalists, first names only. (I KNOW who these people are. I’m on first-name terms with them.)
He was low key, serious, kept to the point, didn’t over-elaborate, didn’t waffle, didn’t sloganise or patronise. He kept it short, and he left swiftly and without ceremony, pausing only to say, “Bonjour” to a French journo who threw a parting question at him. Or was that a French/Canadian pranker?
Was he looking tired, finally, or was he feeling unwell? Both, maybe.
There’s some excellent writing in the Guardian today:
By Marina Hyde (A bad week for the cause of banality and witless snidery -
Obama's extraordinary oratory made us feel less jaded, and less willing to humour those who made us jaded in the first place
By Jonathan Raban ( 'He tried his best to veil it, but Obama is an intellectual'
And by Polly Toynbee ( ‘Barack could teach Brown to say boo to the goose -
Obama has broken the spell that says centre-left parties threatening to tax the rich are inevitably dead in the water http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/08/obama-brown-glenrothes-labour )
Each of these articles also generated a huge amount of responses in Comment Is Free, which are worth taking the time to read, even when they’re written by saddos, cynics and frustrated rightists. What it is to have this huge, virtual meeting going on with the possibility of re-reading what each individual is trying to get across.
Marina Hyde said,
As they watched Barack Obama's inspiring acceptance speech this week, one wonders how many politicians, and even ex-politicians, experienced a . . . sobering, gut-sinking sense if not of their own inadequacy in the face of the gold standard, then at least of the manner in which the public discourse has been allowed to bump along at the level of the banal and unedifying for what suddenly seems so long.
Obama's extraordinary oratory this week made people feel less jaded, but simultaneously less willing to humour those who had made them feel so jaded in the first place. Many will have smarted anew at the terrible squandering of New Labour's mandate in 1997, sensing that the president-elect realises there are rather more pressing things to do than organise cocktail parties for pop stars; or, to use a more up to date example, that there are nobler ways to spend one's time than messing about on oligarchs' boats.
This week people were reminded of what an inspiring politician sounds like, and how he carries himself. Excellence is a useful reference point. While that memory remains fresh in the public mind, people will be measuring their own leaders against it - the very leaders now seeking to be Obama's best friend.
Jonathan Raban said,
Inevitably, Wednesday's headlines were all about Obama's skin colour and the historic milestone of the first black presidency. For the United States and the rest of the world, that is a fact of huge symbolic importance, but it is the least of Obama's true credentials. What America has succeeded in doing, against all the odds, and why we cried when it happened, is to elect the most intelligent, canny and imaginative candidate to the presidential office in modern times - someone who'll bring to the White House an extraordinary clarity of thought and temperate judgment.
Much of the nightmare of the last eight years has arisen from the fact that one of the least intellectually curious or gifted presidents in history was in thrall to a group of passionate, but second-rate, neoconservative intellectuals, all associated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose imperial agenda for the US was lost on the man they guided and advised.
The 43rd president . . . prided himself in reading no newspapers and being in bed by nine. While Bush was bicycling and cutting brush at his Crawford ranch in Texas, the intellectuals in his administration were staying up late in DC, busy about the task of reshaping the United States into the Roman Empire of the 21st century.
Heaven knows, (Obama) will need all the intelligence and range of viewpoints he can muster to cope with the toxic legacy he inherits from the 43rd president: the mounting turmoil in Afghanistan, the dangerous, simmering cauldron in Iraq; an America cordially loathed by at least half the world; an impending global economic catastrophe, triggered by the lunatic improvidence of deregulated Wall Street. Not since Lincoln and Roosevelt has an incoming president been landed with an America in such desperate need of rehabilitation and repair, and it was no surprise that, in his Chicago victory speech on Tuesday, Obama conjured the ghosts of those two presidents.
On Tuesday, there was a strong echo of Roosevelt's first inaugural speech when Obama said, "I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree."
After eight years of an administration whose hallmarks have been secrecy, dishonesty, and a refusal to listen to any voice outside its own inner circle, this promise of candour and conversation was probably the most important policy statement that he could make as president-elect.
The best thing about living in the United States since Tuesday has been the gilt-edged assurance that, somewhere out there, very smart people are thinking and talking in a serious conversation from which narrow ideologues have been rigorously excluded.
Polly Toynbee said,
To the centre-left Obama sets a remarkable challenge, especially to the Labour government. He has changed everything: triangulation is dead; saying what you mean and meaning what you say has won the day for progressive values, with no feinting to the right. Can Gordon Brown grasp how many of the old rules Obama has broken?
Here is an American president - repeat, an American president - elected on a platform well to the left of Labour's. Obama is pledged to take 10 million of the lowest paid out of taxation, paid for by higher taxes on earners of above $250,000. Brown has never permitted even the whisper of a suggestion of taxing the rich more fairly. He never castigated the greedy in the years of plenty when they needed to hear it
Obama won the day when he said: "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." However often John McCain and Sarah Palin replayed the phrase, calling it socialism, the spirit of fairness resonated with voters.
Obama talked openly about obscene pay at the top: "You can turn the page on policies that have put the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street." He said: "The last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else." Can you imagine Brown ever saying this? "Our free market was never meant to be a free licence to take whatever you can get, however you can get it." Obama promises a windfall on energy companies too.
Beyond that, he lays into tax avoiders. "There's a building in the Cayman Islands that houses supposedly 12,000 US-based corporations. That's either the biggest building in the world or the biggest tax scam in the world." He promises to close the loopholes and "restore fairness to our tax code". So who rules the Caymans? We do. Who controls more tax havens than any other nation in the world? We do. Let's hope Obama now forces us to shut them all down. Much of the £28bn missing in uncollected UK taxes leaks out here - and 11 years into a Labour government, our tax havens remain untouched.
So will Gordon Brown get the deep message of the Obama win? Stop being afraid of your own shadow. Say what you think. On gross greed and excess, the people are far ahead of the politicians, as they are on the behaviour of banks. Yesterday, prodded by the public outrage (or maybe by the Mail's "Shame of the banks" front page), Alistair Darling summoned the bankers in and made each of them round the table say, one by one, what they would do to cut their lending rates - and they did. Labour is learning to say boo to the goose.
Now it's time to abolish bonuses, ending the phoney "performance related" culture that brought the world economy to its knees. There is no research evidence for its effectiveness: it simply inflates excess. Clean up corporate culture; stop fleecing shareholders with outrageous pay and executive expense account extravagance with money stolen from our pension funds. A time of austerity, where millions suffer greatly and permanently in lost jobs, homes and businesses, demands political leadership that echoes the indignation on the streets. Obama did just that.
America always amazes, and we usually follow on - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Blair made the terrible mistake of following the lead of the very worst of all US presidents. The question now is whether Brown can breathe in the message from one who may prove to be among the very best.