Jim Sleeper: The Republic After Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer at Yale University.

Hannah Arendt characterized politics as a realm of "speech-acts," in which words are close enough to deeds so that the words aren't evasive or empty and the deeds aren't mindless or brutal.

In April our national orchestra of high-minded opinion presented President Obama's oration on the deficit as a great speech-act. A chorus of pundits rejoiced that he'd exposed the hypocrisies of Rep. Paul Ryan and other Republican deficit hawks-cum-rollback artists. The orchestra oomph-pah-pah'd its way through its familiar medley, "This Is the Best of All Possible Worlds." After all, it's only an orchestra, not a politically organized force.

I couldn't help feeling -- and warning here, in virtually the same words you're reading now -- that most of what Obama said he stood for was about to be eviscerated by a bought-and-paid-for Congress whose members' words have become so divorced from deeds that brutality has entered the congressional arena itself, as in the Tea Party disruptions of congressional town-hall meetings, not to mention in Tuscon.

The only justifiable answer to what Obama himself called the "hostage takers" in a rare moment of pique would be an electorate that hasn't just been entertained by him in what, in retrospect, was his year-long Michael Jackson concert of 2007-2008, but one that has been educated and mobilized by a truth-telling Great Communicator.

I credit Obama with elevating racial politics. I've never expected him to slay the dragons of the American casino-financed, corporate-welfare, consumer-defrauding juggernaut single-handedly, especially given the damage done by fanatical Republican strategists determined to "starve the beast" of government. But there remains a standard of truth-telling leadership -- the kind that would educate and mobilize a body politic against its hostage takers. It's a standard that Obama has conspicuously failed to meet. Instead, he's been an "Ivy neo-liberal," with grace notes that I and others began worrying about even before his election.

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