—Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (in Bk. III, 1112a)
At issue from some weeks back is whether Barack Obama should be respected or esteemed for being a conduit of popular will (or particular articulations of sentiment among the popular demographic). Alex, being the well-read and thoughtful commentator on political issues that he is, challenged me on this point and asked why we should esteem a leader for giving in to the demands of others. (Discussion here.) For weeks I have let this question sit on the back-burner (or maybe a back-back-burner) and yet I think if I had a strong and sound response it would have come to the fore more readily. As it stands I think I only have a partial response that needs tempering and revision. So either Alex is correct in his thinking, or if he is wrong it is not because I am right (or that I am yet right). I'll continue to think about this.
What lies in the power of the American electorate? Relatively little, on a federal level. But the electorate can pick its officials. Obama ran a campaign based famously on "change," and of course everyone who got behind him knew that the referent of this term had its roots that ran well outside of partisan politics. Of course it was partisan too. My point is that its popular appeal was not merely partisan. This was not solely a change from 'Republican' to 'Democrat.' Obama's campaign captured the speech, the votes, the labor hours, of so many millions of people because it represented a change to Washington culture in general. Certainly we cannot realistically expect Obama to deliver a sweeping transformation; nevertheless he was elected and given such a rapturous welcome by so many because of his symbolic negotiation of the office of the presidency:
"But ultimately, this race is not about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain. This election is about you—the American people—and whether we will have a president and a party that can lead us toward a brighter future." (Here.)
I do not believe that Obama was refusing to play politics when he made this appeal—from one Time Person of the Year (Barack Obama) to another (You). He and his campaign knew exactly what he was doing, and a popular opinion so cultivated, so "played," is not an opinion that can be trusted for decisive and long-term policy. Nevertheless I think that what is at stake with this office is the issue of electoral efficacy. Obama must show himself to be a conduit of populist demands (or make a convincing illusion of it, which may or may not prove easy, we shall see). If he does not honor these terms of his electoral triumph, then I fear that no amount of Lincoln & King invocation will keep history from flicking him aside in a few more years.