Palin and Obama [UPDATED]

July 8, 2009 at 2:36 am (By Amba)

Tonight I’m thinking about how much these two politicians are alike.

Of course, they are the figureheads of diametrically opposed tribes and worldviews.  But the way they serve in their respective roles is uncannily alike.  They are of the same generation, a generation weaned on symbols in an age in which the din of symbols (often clashing) drowns out substance.  Humans may once have found symbols in the forest along with food, but modern humans live in a forest of symbols.  They’re a large part of what we hunt, make, consume, and trade.

Obama and Palin are both magnetic screens for projection, both positive and negative.  A broad range of people can see in Barack or in Sarah what they want to see.  And that makes both of them extraordinarily polarizing:  you either love them or hate them (and if you love one you hate the other).  They’re held up as either redeemers or wreckers.  Both are remarkably well suited to be seen as exemplars and embodiments of the values they stand for:  cosmopolitanism in Obama’s case, frontier faith and fortitude in Palin’s.  Underneath, both are more complicated than that.  Both combine lofty ideals, apparently sincerely, even zealously held, with an ability to be pragmatic, and even ruthless, amoral and cronyistic.  Even their names are weirdly symmetrical, contrasting little morality plays — notice where the stresses are, the tone color of the vowels — in almost the same number of letters.

There’s an apocalyptic sense that the armies of these two worldviews are in a fight to the death, captained by these charismatic young avatars.  Yet the complete triumph of one, and destruction of the other, is impossible — and would be a disaster.

UPDATE: The Anchoress says much the same thing:

We live in a very polarized age wherein we too often and too-willingly segregate ourselves with an “us good, them bad” mentality. That is not new, of course. Humans have always drawn their lines of demarcation between themselves and others – mostly either because of ethnicity or language or creed. Lately, as ethnicities blend and languages fade, the lines seem increasingly to be drawn mostly over ideologies disguised as creeds. Or creeds disguised as ideologies.

It’s distressing to see. It is terribly distressing to watch what appears to be an inexorable move toward national self-destruction in the pursuit of “squashing the other side,” when in fact both sides are America’s, and an America without healthy discourse and respectable, honorable and loyal dissent will not need an outside enemy to render her impotent and eventually inconsequential.


  1. Melinda said,

    Well, I didn’t love or hate either one of them, although I chose the Democrat in that election. So what does that make me, a dashing cosmopolitan with my moon in frontier faith and fortitude rising?

  2. Bruce B. (chickenlittle) said,

    It is also interesting to consider that half of Barack Obama’s family background is the Midwestern fortitude variety, and yet, IMO, he is unable to project that at all. Perhaps he’s holding it in reserve, or his ex-pat mother sabotaged it (she didn’t appear to have ever had much of it). He needs to gets some of that back, though I hope he doesn’t before the 2010 midterms.

  3. amba said,

    Me too didn’t love or hate either one. I identify more with Obama but (perhaps for that very reason) find Palin more refreshing.

  4. amba said,

    I would say that intellectuals can be a parasitic class, but oops, then I’d be agreeing with Stalin and Pol Pot. Let’s just say that the farther removed you are from the ordinary business of living, the less that’s pertinent you have to say about it, unless you have respect for it and work at keeping in touch with it. Ideas and the ordinary business of living need each other.

  5. amba said,

    In fact, back when intellectuals were infatuated with the working class instead of the underclass, Marxism was their (our?) abstract way of “keeping in touch with the ordinary business of living.” One must tread very carefully here.

  6. michael grant said,

    Palin quits because she can’t handle the pressure of the Alaska governorship where she had a lot of stress over a pipeline.

    Obama shows up to work and with seeming effortlessness handles all the pressures of the White House and a country very nearly totaled by its previous owner.

    Palin gives an ill-conceived, impetuous, panting, inexplicable and utterly bizarre speech full of self-pity and resentment on the not-exactly-challenging topic: why I quit.

    Obama speaks to the Muslim world in measured tones that gain worldwide admiration for subtlety, understanding and effectiveness despite the fact that the speech must navigate more minefields than a WW2 destroyer.

    Yes. It’s as if they were separated at birth.

    Annie, your political analysis is getting so weird it could come from Wasilla. I think I understand the reason: you’re trying to justify a disastrous decision in 2008 to leap aboard the McCain-Palin sinking ship.

    You know you’re wrong, but you don’t want to admit it. You know that if Palin were in the White House today you’d be anxiously pushing Jacques’ wheelchair toward the Canadian border. I told you at the time you’d made a big mistake and that you would come to regret it. But the road to redemption begins with confession. Come on, you’ll feel so much better.

    The sum total of your objection to Obama seems to be that he’s young. In fact I don’t think you’ve ever commented on Obama without some variation on “he’s young.”

    Yes: he’s young. Anything else? Because you and I are both at the point in life where just about everything we’ll see done from here to the grave will be done by people younger than ourselves.

    No doubt, given my winning personality, I’d be cranking on about those kids today, too, if not for the fact that I have kids and write for kids so I have no practical alternative to having some faith that those younger than me may yet show me the way.

    Palin and Obama are both young. That’s all they have in common. Why is that so important to you?

  7. michael grant said,

    Shit, I meant to sign in as Michael Reynolds. Well, fuck it.

  8. amba said,

    Miles off as usual, Michael. You don’t get me at all (politically). I only guess that my position is inconceivable to you because to you there are only two: yours, and the other one.

    One does not deeply regret a decision that wasn’t made out of misguided passion in the first place.

    I hardly think Obama and Palin are identical, but I think the roles they play for their respective followings are weirdly similar.

    I happen to agree with you that Obama’s overture to the Muslim world in Cairo was smart. I don’t think it was craven. I do not think Islam per se is the enemy. I think there are millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of Muslims who practice their religion in a good-hearted everyday way (witness those for whom shouting Allahu Akbar! from the rooftops of Tehran was an act of rebellion and of desire to join the modern world). And that we can either insult and demonize those people and push them toward Osama, or invite them to coexist with us in the modern world. I think he’ll get a lot of takers. How he deals with autocrats and the lack of democracy in the Muslim world is another question, much trickier. I don’t think he has that right, so far, but I couldn’t tell you how to get it right.

    I’ve said over and over again that I’m especially hard on Obama because I identify with him, but you’ve never heard that. It doesn’t seem to be in your concept set, so it doesn’t exist to you.

  9. Sissy Willis said,

    As I wrote the other day in Sarah Palin “speaks from the heart“:

    Like Barack Obama, Sarah Palin can be a blank canvas upon which huddled masses yearning to breathe free — or in Obama’s case, huddled masses yearning to be on the dole — project their inchoate longings. The difference is that while Obama speaks from the latest polls, Palin — in Fox Brit ex pat Stuart Varney’s words — “speaks from the heart, and maybe that’s what Americans want.”

    The Shining City Upon a Hill is often taken for granted by those born under its light, and sometimes it takes an outsider like Varney to remind us that freedom isn’t free.

  10. amba said,

    As I said on Twitter yesterday, Sarah’s popularity is evidence of the longing for a leader who is a plain unvarnished unpretentious American. I don’t know whether she has the substance and staying power to carry the weight of that projection, or whether she’s more of a Chance Gardiner (“Being There”), on whom the projection has settled simply because she’s that type of person, whether or not she’s suited to be a full-fledged leader. (I mean I really don’t know; I’m not coming to conclusions yet.) What’s regrettable about her resignation is that she’s passed up the chance to gain more experience as a leader dealing with real stuff, not just media stardom and slander. She’s now going into private life, but probably also into the spotlight without any administrative counterweight to the celebrity part. That’s sort of what I mean about her leadership being symbolic, just as Obama’s electoral triumph was all about symbolism and doesn’t automatically confer administrative ability.

  11. michael reynolds said,

    Obama’s electoral triumph was all about symbolism and doesn’t automatically confer administrative ability.

    Are you suggesting we voted for Obama because he’s black?

    Obama was elected because George W. Bush was incompetent. That’s not symbolism. The economy was crashing and so was our foreign policy. That’s why Obama was elected. The GOP had screwed the pooch in spectacular style, and then nominated the oldest man on earth, who then chose a nincompoop as Veep, and the two of them proceeded to run an awful campaign.

    Obama’s administrative ability was demonstrated to a great degree by the running of a campaign that even his opponents admit was a thing of beauty. First he destroyed old and experienced Hillary and then the even older and even more experienced McCain.

    You bought the GOP party line on Obama: that he was radical, that Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright were somehow relevant or even dispositive, that he was naive, that he was a pacifist, weak, that he was just a symbol, that he was a blank screen.

    Since then your approach to Obama has been based on these clearly false premises. The premises were wrong, demonstrably wrong, and could be seen to be wrong by anyone willing to look with an open mind at the facts.

    Here are the facts: Obama bailed out the banks as Bush had done. He stuck to the SOFA in Iraq. He moved 17,000 more men into Afghanistan and continued attacks inside Pakistan. He made overtures to various enemies. He moved to re-regulate parts of the financial industry. He put money into a stimulus. He is currently pushing health reform and cap and trade.

    I’m at a loss to see where those are empty symbolic acts. They seem pretty real and concrete to me. Pragmatic. Moderate. Which is exactly what any clear-eyed person knew Obama to be, what I said repeatedly he was, and what the American people voted for, and continue to support by 2 to 1.

    He’s been what we expected. He’s done what we expected. None of us are sitting around thinking, “Wow, I’m shocked that he isn’t the messiah and hasn’t made gold dust fall from the sky.” That’s a sad little GOP fantasy. You remember the GOP, right? 25% of the population and dropping?

  12. amba12 said,

    You bought the GOP party line on Obama: that he was radical I did? Who are you talking to? If we both went through AmbivaBlog looking at my statements on Obama, I suspect you would not find one saying so, and I would find several objecting to that assumption about him. Neither of us wants to do that, however. You’ll “win” this argument with your straw woman in your own mind, and I’ll ignore it because you’re not talking to me.

  13. michael reynolds said,

    I went back and looked. You’re right: you did not say Obama was a radical.

    But I could easily prove my suggestion that you are obsessed with Obama’s age.

    And it’s interesting that you chose only that issue to contest. I asked you if you were suggesting we all voted for Obama because he was black. That’s the essence of your “all about symbolism” statement, isn’t it? Or am I misreading you? What else might you have meant by “all about symbolism?”

    Do you think 55% of the American electorate voted for Obama because he’s black? Do you think I did?

  14. amba said,

    I certainly don’t think you voted for Obama because he’s black. Nor do I think that’s why he was elected. I don’t see the arm-twisting the Right sees about “if you don’t vote for him you’re a racist.” I think it was his magnificent oratory in 2004 (which impressed the hell out of me too), the Democrats’ desperation to regain power, which made it worth a gamble on someone underripe; the change of generation — the fact that he’s not a baby boomer (notably neither is McCain) — and the country being fed up with Bush. That said, Obama’s being black was a real factor in people feeling good that they had enough reasons to vote for him. Breaking the racial barrier was thrilling for everyone; even his ideological enemies freely acknowleged that that was a great milestone.

    Nope, the symbolism I mean is that which is symmetrical with Palin: the fact that he virtually embodies cosmopolitanism, as she virtually embodies small-town, working-class spunk. The globe and the tribe; the future and the past, if you will; science and religion. Each of them symbolizes a set of values. You see a stark choice between them — we’re not going towards the past, obviously! I used to say about myself, “My roots are in the future.” What I’ve learned is that it’s not either/or. You can’t totally throw out the past, you have to stay in touch with it, be informed by it, and take the best parts of it with you into the future. I see conservatives as a — what’s that kind of anchor called? It’s not a drag anchor (you’d say just a drag) — I forget the word for it, but it slows down a ship’s forward momentum and stabilizes it.

    I’m a cosmopolitan, but a cosmopolitan who thinks cosmopolitans don’t TOTALLY know best, and sees that if cosmopolitans dominate unchecked, much that’s precious will be lost beyond retrieving. I appreciate the drag anchor keeping me from going off the deep end. I appreciate the staunch structure which allows me to explore forward.

  15. amba said,

    Lastly, I’m not obsessed with Obama’s age but with his unreadiness, which he himself acknowledged!! — his practical, administrative inexperience and the relative abstraction of his ideas (which he’ll be getting over in a hurry). I find it laughable that running a campaign in his own political career is regarded as administrative experience qualifying him for the presidency of the United States. I know no one is ready to be president, but there are degrees of unreadiness. Obama needed to put in more time — as does Palin.

  16. amba said,

    And: McCain was too old.

  17. wj said,

    I think Sissy’s words nailed it: for many people, both Obama and Palin are a blank canvas — and people project both hopes and fears onto each. In some ways, I think the projection of fears is at least as significant as the projection of hopes.

    But note, Michael, that’s many people; by no means everyone. In particular, it isn’t those of us who actually pay attention to politics. For us, what people show signs of doing and being interested in are what we base our votes on.

    But, especially for President and Vice President, it’s only signs, not a long list of deeds. Because, like Obama, nobody is ever ready and experienced enough to be President. Hasn’t been for a century, at least. So all you can do is try to see who
    a) shows some signs of organizational skills,
    b) shows some signs of being able to find/attract competent people to work for her, and
    c) shows some interest in the things (economics, the outside world, etc.) that a President has to deal with. Nobody is an expert on all of those, of course — no matter what illusion our politicians are expected to project. And actually, expertise may be a negative, because experts tend to have hardened opinions that may not flex in the face of reality. But some signs of interest, and basic understanding, are a big plus.

    Obama showed during the campaign that he had those covered. Palin, from what I have seen, did not and does not. I would go so far as to say that those signs can even outweigh a moderate divergence in ideology. Better to have someone who can actually do the job than someone whose heart is in the right place, but can’t.

  18. Sissy Willis said,

    Amba: Check out “Ocean Torque Stationary Boat Stabilizers”: The rougher it gets the better they work!” A perfect metaphor!

  19. reader_iam said,

    **I’ve said over and over again that I’m especially hard on Obama because I identify with him, but you’ve never heard that. It doesn’t seem to be in your concept set, so it doesn’t exist to you.**

  20. reader_iam said,

    I despair of some ever getting past this desire to psychoanalyze other people’s decisions and, whether intentionally or not, paint them as not in good faith and/or taken thoughtfully, if with trepidation. It’s been the biggest disappointment of the aughts for me, perhaps the biggest lesson of my 40s (as I head toward 50), and certainly the ‘#1 source of my disillusionment with the political blogosphere.

    Oh, well. So it goes. Nothing to be done but move along.

  21. amba said,

    Perfect, Sissy! I love it! LOL. Thanks!

  22. Sissy Willis said,

    It IS pretty good, isn’t it? :-)

  23. amba said,

    “The rougher it gets the better they work!”

  24. Palin’s Quit: Do Women Take the Rules Less Seriously? « Cloven Not Crested said,

    […] of print civilization with its structured and deferred ways of thinking.  As I’ve written in noting similarities in the roles that Sarah Palin and Barack Obama play for their respective constituencies of “people like […]

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