Harold Meyerson (who I remember from his LA Weekly days) has a piece in the Washington Post that leads with a criticism I’ve seen frequently:
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek,” candidate Barack Obama said in 2008. At the time, his comments came in for criticism: They were narcissistic; they were tautological; they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
First off, let’s drill down to a fuller version of Mr. Obama’s quote:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. (Cheers, applause.) We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes, they can.” (Cheers, applause.)
Joe Klein, of Time, is among the critics talked about in the ABC piece Meyerson links to. He said this at the time (2008):
The man’s use of pronouns (never I), of inspirational language and of poetic meter — “WE are the CHANGE that we SEEK” — is unprecedented in recent memory.
And yet there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. “This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It’s different not because of me. It’s different because of you.” That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause — other than an amorphous desire for change — the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.
No, no, and furthermore, no.
It’s probably the “pronoun trouble” Klein mentions, but I never saw Mr. Obama’s use of “we,” in “We are the change we seek,” as somewhow being a self-referential, royal “we.” No, as the lead-in sentence, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time,” indicates, I’ve always heard it as:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. So we, the people, all of us in this room — we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We, the people, are the change that so many of us seek. We, the people, are the hope of…”
So, no, the Obama campaign was not about how great Mr. Obama was. It was about how great the common, everyday American citizen is. This is probably why the press, as typified by Messrs. Meyerson and Klein, never got that. At the end of the day, they believe only the subjects they cover are legitimate in thinking they’re great, or have any impact on the American political comity. They don’t cover common, everyday people — if for no other reason than there’re so damned many of us — therefore, it must have been their subject, Mr. Obama, saying he was great, at the expense of the rest of us. (About the myopia of the press, especially campaign/political press, see, in general, James Fallows’ Breaking the News.)
It’s this promotion by the press of a worldview where only a select view are relevant to the political process, or have any impact on it, that’s perhaps the most dangerous in political reportage today. One of the biggest challenges we face is how the many feel they’re pawns on the tables of the few. This editorial view, even if unconscious, surely doesn’t help.
But it was exactly that worldview which the 2008 campaign by Mr. Obama repeatedly addressed. It was that worldview they repeatedly fought, and tried to persuade everyday people to see how they were — and still are — the most potent political force in the world. It was that assault on the Great Person view of politics that many in the press didn’t — and, obviously, still don’t — get.
And that’s a damned shame.
EDITED TO ADD: I will lay money the pronoun trouble with “we,” is why Mr. Obama used the phrase, “We, the people…” so often in the second inaugural address. It wasn’t just to echo the constitution; it was to spoon feed those in the press who apparently can’t parse simple, declarative sentences.