Give Obama a break

Rejoice, Democrats. After all those months worrying about a train wreck at the Democratic National Convention, you can relax. Everyone in Denver is acting like a normal human being.

Hillary didn’t kick Barack in the groin, she didn’t try to claw Michelle’s eyes out, and she didn’t incite a riot among her followers. Breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Michelle, meanwhile, gave an earnest tear-jerker of a speech, thwarting right-wing efforts to paint her as a resentful, dashiki-wearing black nationalist. Teddy Kennedy rose from his hospital bed to remind us of Camelot. Even Bill Clinton behaved himself.


So, Democrats, why all the long faces? Oh, right. Where’s the messiah?

The convention is practically over, but Barack Obama has yet to utterly transform U.S. politics or perform any miracles. Wheelchair-bound conventioneers are still in their wheelchairs, and the only loaves and fishes are those provided by caterers. The economy’s still in the toilet. The war in Iraq is still going on. Beltway insider Joe Biden is the VP pick, and Obama hasn’t even apologized for his vote on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. So where’s the change?

Poor Obama. When Hillary, Michelle, Teddy and Bill act like normal people, everyone’s happy. But Obama’s never allowed to just be a regular guy. He’s supposed to be a cross between a new Jack Kennedy and a new Martin Luther King Jr. -- someone who can transform politics-as-usual, cast aside the old divisions of race, class and partisanship and lead us into a future full of hope and ... you know, change. He’s supposed to be transcendent.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters never bought the “Obama as messiah” thing, and even among Obama fans, there’s been a muted but rising chorus of disillusioned questions in recent months: Inspiring speeches are great, but exactly how is Obama going to help middle-income Americans cope with the credit crunch? Would the messiah have voted to give telecom companies immunity for illegal domestic wiretapping on behalf of U.S. spy agencies? And couldn’t Obama have come up with someone a little more exciting than Biden -- a Latina single mother from Mississippi, say, or a wounded gay Iraq war vet?

Democrats should give Obama a break. He’s not the messiah -- as his wife has dryly pointed out, he’s an ordinary mortal, someone who doesn’t always pick up his socks off the floor.

Actually, he’s not quite “ordinary.” Obama is not the average American -- who’d want an “average” president? His multiracial background is striking, and he’s smart, progressive, imaginative and charismatic. He can give a speech that makes you cry. But he’s also a regular politician. He takes full advantage of lucky breaks and knows how to compromise, bargain and play hardball. Occasionally, he makes dumb mistakes.

He’s not the messiah. Get over it, Democrats.

Get over it for the obvious, pragmatic reason: If you want a Democrat in the White House, you’ve got to stop fretting about your nominee’s lack of magical powers and just work to get him elected. Because, as Clinton reminded Democrats on Tuesday night, this election is about more than any particular candidate: It’s about “that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids ... that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage ... [and] all the people in this country who feel invisible.” It’s not about Clinton -- or Obama either.

But get over it for another reason too. Democrats, of all people, should remember that political transformation comes primarily from broad-based social movements, not from transcendent individuals. Neither King nor Lyndon Johnson magically brought civil rights to African Americans. Moving speeches and civil rights legislation were important -- but those speeches wouldn’t have made much difference, and that legislation would never have been possible, had it not been for the thousands of people, black and white, who spoke out, organized, signed petitions and joined protest marches (sometimes risking their livelihoods and their lives to do so).

You want a transformative political leader? In Obama, you may have one, but don’t expect him to do that transforming all by himself. Obama’s good, but no one’s that good. For Obama to shepherd in real change -- economic, social or in foreign policy, whatever “change” means to you -- he needs robust, supportive social and political movements to tap into.

So if Democrats want real “change,” they need to get out there and organize, give Obama solid backing and not go all wishy-washy when he makes mistakes. And they need to stop griping that his speeches alone don’t transform the political landscape. That’s their job.