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A Vision for President Obama, and the Rest of Us

Presuming that Barack Obama has won another term, can he offer a new vision for America and the world? Ironically, given his rhetorical skills and ‘transformational’ candidacy, his first term suffered from a lack of what George H. W. Bush indelibly called “the vision thing.” If he wants to be a great president, Barack has to find his mission.

I must admit that I’m asking myself, what’s the point of writing a piece like this? The country is in such a pit, and the world is such a mess, why bother to offer anything of deeper value where political culture is concerned?

The day after the worst terrorist attack in the world’s history was a beautiful, cloudless day in California, much as it was reported to have been in New York on 9.11. Reeling from the emotional impact of the collapse of the Twin Towers like everyone else, I kept asking, as I walked a bike path along a creek, where is this going to lead?

Having persisted in my question for an hour, it slipped into the background of the beauty of the day. Then, as I crossed a footbridge, I looked to my right (the west), and was stopped in my tracks by a perfectly formed mushroom cloud rising thousands of feet into the air. It was the only cloud in the entire sky, and obviously wasn’t man-made, though it looked like the picture of a nuclear explosion.

I didn’t want to believe it then, and still don’t want to today, over 11 years later, but at a gut level the feeling was that this was the answer to my question.

Returning to the apartment, I told my housemate, who is old enough to have seen a flash illuminating the night sky from an above-ground detonation in the Nevada desert while camping in the High Sierras with her parents, to go out and look to the west. I said nothing more, wanting to see what her reaction would be. Having been subjected to ‘duck and cover’ drills in school, she returned looking ashen, whispered, ‘a mushroom cloud.’

There are times in human history when the momentum of the past makes events inevitable. Sometimes such convulsions are apparent to a sizable number of people beforehand, sometimes only to a few.

The collapse of the nation-state system is inevitable, and most of us know it. The old order almost collapsed at the end of Bush Junior’s second term, and the world has been living in shadow since then.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the feeling that something even more catastrophic than 9.11, like the use of a nuclear weapon, is going to happen soon, kicking out the last rotten pillars of the old order.

Barack Obama won in 2008 on the slogan ‘yes we can’ bring about a transformation in our social and political culture. It turned out to be nothing more than a slogan of course, the calculated exploitation of a widespread but superficial desire for change in the American people.

As such it was a great political con. Now that he’s presumably won a second term, wouldn’t it be ironic if America, under Obama, in responding to a global catastrophe on the scale of nuclear war, were to actually usher in radical changes in human nature and political culture, not only for the United States but the world?

This country has been so bitterly divided, the body politic so deeply paralyzed, and President Obama such a competent mediocrity that it seems impossible that America could respond to the global crisis facing humankind.

A pervasive narcissism and numbness hangs like a toxic fog over the land. To the many believers in the immutability of human nature, Homo sap seems hopeless. But given that the precipitous decline of America is essentially spiritual in nature, if a sufficient minority of people, here and elsewhere confronts the core facts within themselves, darkness could be dispelled quite quickly.

It’s unconscionable that America alone accounts for half the military spending in the entire world. Republicans have again run on God, guns, and gung-ho Americanism, but such barbarism may be in its last throes. Even so, when the last respected institution in a country is the military, and a fetish for ‘heroes,’ sentimentally modeled after ‘the fallen,’ infects the media, fascism is a real and present danger.

President Obama has done nothing to address or redress this pernicious threat, and one cannot help but wonder if he even has it in him to speak the truth to the American people. Indeed, his lack of true leadership has been demonstrated in precisely the opposite way that Republicans have accused him. He has demonstrated the typical insecure Democrats’ need to prove how tough he is, by doubling down in Afghanistan (while trying to have it both ways in setting a date certain for departure), and by vastly increasing extra-judicial killings through the dreadful use of drones.

When Abraham Lincoln died, even many people in the South, which had just been defeated in a long, bitter, and bloody civil war, mourned his death. It would take decades before this land truly grew into the United States, but people in the South still grieved as if they had lost a close relative.

One cannot at this point imagine Americans grieving anything like that if Obama suddenly died, whether by natural, or God forbid unnatural means.

President Obama will now be concerned with his legacy. If he is to be the great president that many, even conservatives, had hoped he would be, he will have to rise a challenge on the scale of ending slavery and preserving the union.

What is that challenge? We live in an interconnected global society, so it isn’t about the American prospect first and last, but the human prospect first and last. At bottom the pressing question is: Can humankind live in some semblance of harmony on this beautiful earth?

Barack Obama, a man of margins and many lands, has to find boldness within himself, and speak for humanity. Should a nuclear weapon be used anywhere in the world, that will be his moment of truth.

History teaches us that one person, for good or ill, whether a president or previously unknown, can make a huge difference. We have to do more than hope; we have to question and examine our own hearts and minds, so that we will be ready to act in the name of humanity when our moment of truth comes.

There is great urgency, for it is here, and now.

Martin LeFevre

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