"I Want to Believe" - that was what the X-Files poster hanging in my best friend's bedroom in high school blared out. An updated, political version of this poster would have the same words over a photograph of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D).
I've written a lot about Obama, including a major piece for The Nation magazine last year. In my time studying his career, it became obvious that this is a person who wants to do the right thing and has genuinely strong convictions. But he also seems to believe that the reason our country has such challenges is because all sides of every issue have not come together in unity (I've gone back and forth wondering whether this is a sincere belief or merely a justification for overly cautious behavior, but I'm not a psychoanalyst, so I have no idea).
The problem with this outlook is that it fundamentally misunderstands why we are at this moment in history. Forty-five million Americans are uninsured, and millions more underinsured not because low-income health advocates and the insurance industry haven't sat down together and sung Kumbaya. It's because, unlike every other industrialized country in the world, we have a government that has been bribed into allowing the insurance industry to profiteer off sick people. Our global warming problem did not happen because environmentalists and the auto industry refused to hug each other. It happened because the auto industry has bought off enough politicians to make sure we don't increase fuel efficiency standards.
Put another way, there is no "third way" or "consensus" way out of many of our most pressing problems, as Obama seems to believe. Why? Because many of our most pressing problems are zero-sum: someone is benefiting from the status quo, and to change the status quo means someone may lose something. And if you don't believe me, just take a quick look at history.
We didn't get food safety laws by getting food processing companies to be nice to regular folks - we got it because people like Upton Sinclair and the progressive movement forced our government to crack down. Women didn't get the right to vote because male politicians decided to be nice - they got the right to vote because they demanded it. The civil rights reforms didn't happen because Lyndon Johnson just one day decided to champion the Civil Rights Act - it happened because a movement to frontally challenge power was built.
I believe somewhere in his heart, Barack Obama knows this reality, and struggles with it. As Ben Wallace-Wells writes in Rolling Stone today:
"Obama's life story is a splicing of two different roles, and two different ways of thinking about America's. One is that of the consummate insider, someone who has been raised believing that he will help to lead America, who believes in this country's capacity for acts of outstanding virtue. The other is that of a black man who feels very deeply that this country's exercise of its great inherited wealth and power has been grossly unjust. This tension runs through his life."
Washington is a place designed to drub that latter quality out of Obama - the part that "feels very deeply that this country's exercise of its great inherited wealth and power has been grossly unjust." In the Beltway, he is surrounded by old political hands who, like most people there, likely try to tamp down any of his confrontational, power-challenging instincts for fear they might offend ruling class sensibilities. That culture is at odds with Obama's earlier career in more power-challenging roles, such as a community organizer. This might explain why, for instance, after strongly opposing the war in his run for the U.S. Senate, he went almost completely silent on the issue for his first year in Washington (even once speaking out against those who were pushing for an exit strategy), but now back on the campaign trail, he is pushing one of the strongest bills on Iraq in the entire Congress.
Ultimately, Obama will have to make a very important decision - one that none of the pundits will ever see, much less understand. He will have to decide whether he wants to offer up poll-tested platitudes about nebulous "hope" and run for President, or whether he wants to really challenge the status quo and actually BE elected President. And as I said at the beginning, I want to believe he will make the right choice.