We are now very used to observing the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death — the forty-eighth one ticked past last Tuesday. Were it not so tragic, our novelty-hungry culture would long since have rendered it banal.
But as the generations turn over and our long crisis drags on, even the future which might have been if only JFK had lived has receded irretrievably into the past.
For those on the left, this is a special kind of predicament — not least because their torch of tragic heroism has been passed from Jack to Barack.
The inheritance is not quite what Caroline Kennedy had in mind when she claimed candidate Obama would be “a president like my father.”
Had she studied the history of progressive political thought a little more closely, she might have known better. For reasons wired into the heart of progressive ideology by its first failed champion, Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama will reign supreme as liberalism’s most tragic and most heroic chief executive.
It’s hard to imagine the singular traits and circumstances that could elevate some future being over the sitting president and cause him, her, or it to assume the title of the left’s greatest tragic hero. But we can easily grasp the pattern. Hark back to Caroline Kennedy’s eloquent formulation:
I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it […]; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream […]; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.
Yes, and some of us want a pony, or a unicorn. Mere desire, however, as Kennedy warns us, fails to countenance the full measure of our political duty:
It isn’t that the other candidates are not experienced or knowledgeable […] this year, that may not be enough.
Neither this year nor, one wonders, which other. All the attributes of a progressive president — technical expertise, comfort uttering the smooth syllables of policyspeak, ingrained familiarity with the elite-making establishment — these things are necessary but not sufficient. The lumbering apparatus of bureaucratic administration is always in danger of becoming inspirational to those it offends and banally uninspiring to those it serves.
Once-revolutionary doctrines espoused by America’s first self-styled progressives have now “gradually been absorbed into American common sense,” as the left’s sharpest theorist Richard Rorty has claimed. The “banality of pragmatism,” he wrote, leaves liberals in need of a fighting creed. Rorty called that creed “the poetry of justice”; Barack Obama calls it “the audacity of hope.”
As Woodrow Wilson acknowledged, the feelings of individual insignificance and invisible but palpable limits that struck Tocqueville as inherent to social equality are only worsened by the administrative state. Leaders, said Wilson, “must decrease the number and complexity of the things the voter is called upon to do.” The leader must “concentrate” the voter’s “attention” by “an utter simplification of the things he is expected to look to.” Otherwise, truly national politics are impossible — and so is the political science of the modern nation-state. Managerial expertise can run such a state, but only the poetic audacity of the leader can justify it. As Yuval Levin has suggested, from this perspective, “technocracy and populism are two sides of the same coin.”
John Kennedy fused together the technocratic and the audacious, the banal and the poetic, in a way that the modern left knows it’s at sea without. Sadly, he was also a white scion and an elite philanderer, and his wife thought that Lyndon Johnson — the man obliged to do for civil rights what Kennedy did not — had him murdered. She also called Martin Luther King, Jr. a “terrible” “phony” who loved drinking and orgies.
Caroline can wave these things away — and, of course, has. For its part, the progressive left must blame the political failure of what Ross Douthat calls “the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence” on Oswald, on Nixon, on the gravity of a fallen world that brought down its shooting star.
The embittered redreaming of dreams surrounding Kennedy’s poetry of The New Frontier is back with a vengeance as Obama’s lyrical ode to a New Foundation — or Winning the Future — or whatever — crashes hard against the reality his policies have done more to cement than to change.
The president’s frustration is evident. Progressives cried foul when conservatives pulled out of context Obama’s claim that “we’ve been a little bit lazy” over the last couple of decades. But the context was “something called SelectUSA that organizes all the government agencies to work with state and local governments” to boost foreign investment, as Obama described it to the audience of CEOs gathered in Hawaii to talk economic cooperation.
The scandal is not “lazy.” The scandal is “we.” For Obama, the “we” is the grand “partnership” between big government and big business, the only recognizable organizing principle of his administration.
Just so, to the disgust and delight of Republicans, the president alleged that “we’ve lost our ambition” and “our imagination” — at a campaign event in San Francisco where he (unsuccessfully) pitched a big new round of government spending on infrastructure.
As progressives of the left would seem obliged to believe, the president appears convinced that opposition to his policies means opposition to his poetry — and that, since there are no dreams to justly dream but progressive dreams, opposition to his plans is nihilism, weakness, drift, malaise, a moral defect that amounts to its own kind of treason against some future America.
It is, resolutely, not his mindset, not his mood at fault. Beset by enemies, put upon by the world, victim of deliriously unreasonable expectations proudly and maximally leveraged, Barack Obama is a tragedy for the left because he proves that the contradictions of progressive politics cannot be resolved even under the most historically favorable conditions. And he is a hero because he proves that, in our time, the closest the left can come to greatness is to try, try again.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.