- Jan. 8, 2008 | Barack Obama's stunning victory in Iowa was a moment of national alchemy. It represented an outpouring of righteous Democratic anger, and its simultaneous transformation into hope. That double process -- the cathartic expression of rage, and its purification -- is exactly what Democrats have needed after seven nightmarish years of Bush. It is politics both as payback, and as spiritual transcendence. And the fact that it is a black man who is serving as America's philosopher's stone, turning the base metal of bitterness into the gold of forgiveness, is extraordinarily moving. The possibility that our nation's deepest wound, and the source of our political divisions, could also be the agent of our redemption is like a banner appearing in a darkened sky.
"Redemption" is a big word, perhaps too big for the profane world of politics. It is important to remember that the idea of Barack Obama and the reality of the man are not necessarily the same thing. If the senator from Illinois becomes president, he may or may not do a better job than his two worthy Democratic rivals. But there are times when the symbolic aspect of politics is inescapable -- and creates its own reality. Obama offers something neither Hillary Clinton nor John Edwards does: The chance to decisively slam the door on the Bush era, the Bush war and its Democratic enablers, while simultaneously forgetting them. It is a politics of therapeutic forgetting. And after the Bush years, both anger and creative oblivion are necessary.
In November 2004, American voters reelected the worst president in modern history. That election did more than blight the political hopes of half the people in this country, it raised serious questions about America's very identity. What kind of country could possibly reelect a president as manifestly unfit for office as George W. Bush? Why would millions of Americans again endorse an ignorant, incompetent leader who launched a disastrous and pointless war, presided over an administration based on secrets and lies, trampled the Constitution, ran up a ruinous debt, ignored the global environmental crisis, approved torture and secret prisons, and destroyed America's moral standing in the world?
To be sure, a country that lives by symbolic reconciliation also dies when it is not achieved -- which is why nominating Obama would be a gigantic gamble. The big built-in Democratic advantage in 2008 represents the best opportunity for Obama to win, but it also means that a loss would be devastating. If the young, dynamic, qualified Obama loses to one of the pathetic crop of Republican candidates -- whether it be the unreconstructed Iraq war supporter John McCain, the pathological 9/11 fetishizer Rudy Giuliani, the empty-suit Mitt Romney or the genial but unprepared Mike Huckabee -- the logical conclusion would be that large numbers of Americans were not ready to vote for a black man. In which case, America's symbolic leap forward into a post-racial age of comity would be revealed to be an illusion -- an outcome that would be almost unbearable.
But after Bush, the appeal of throwing the dice is irresistible. If Obama wins in November, a political miracle will have happened: We will have gone from following an authoritarian fool into an insane war to electing a progressive black president, without missing a beat. Can it happen? Who knows? But if America can go down that far into the dark side, perhaps we can emerge just as quickly into the light. And after eight years without it, I don't want to be the one to bet against hope.