Beyond the Obama euphoria


Obama's NightFour years ago, after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Times Square was a mob scene like you only see on New Year's Eve. 

Taxis driven by mostly men from other countries circled the square, honking and waving their hands, while people everywhere chanted 'Yes we can'. There was a palpable sense of relief, of something awful finally being over, and something truly historic beginning. Obama was, in his campaign's words, 'the change we can believe in'.

Today, the euphoria has passed. As inspirational and visionary as Obama has appeared internationally, he's struggled in the States against not only a manically negative Republican opposition with no interest in working together, but his own willingness to sit back far too long on important issues. His poor performance in the first debate came as a surprise to many, but it was consistent with the odd passivity from which he sometimes suffers.

When it came down to deciding between giving Obama four more years and electing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, however, the American people have clearly supported the President, and in a much more emphatic way than most had predicted.

Almost from the moment results started coming in, Obama was ahead in the key states. He won Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (home of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan) far earlier than expected. So, too, Ohio and Florida began trending his way early. He swept the Midwest. And he was reelected by 11:12EST, just 12 minutes later than in 2008 and a far cry from the tie some were suggesting might occur as recently as a week ago.

Some of Obama's success is a result of Hurricane Sandy. In the face of the destruction that Sandy caused, there was just no more oxygen for the soul-deadening, empty politics of the past year. And Obama, who to his great credit did not try to take political advantage of the disaster, surged in the polls from that moment on.

Romney was also trying to thread an almost impossible needle between moderates and extremists in his own party. The US as a whole skews conservative (and would so even more if we had mandatory voting), but always with a certain commonsense moderation. In driving out the moderates from the Republican party, Tea Party idealists with little interest in politics or compromise pushed away the independent voters they need to win.

They will quickly distance themselves from Romney now, but he was their best shot at gaining power, the safe cover story they needed.

For American Catholics, one of the most important questions coming out of the election surrounds the actions of the bishops. Over the last 20 years they have become increasingly vociferous about their politics; in recent weeks bishops the country over insisted letters be read at Mass pushing congregations to vote Republican. In the diocese of Green Bay, Bishop David Ricken went so far as to say those who vote Democrat 'put their souls at risk'.

That approach has been repudiated twice now. At some point the bishops would be wise to reconsider their approach. A voice in the wilderness has its place, but so does reasoned, respectful discourse.

Tom Brokaw, esteemed American journalist and former news anchor for NBC, noted that when talking to voters around the country who said they wanted 'major change', what they generally meant was they wanted the parties to work together. If Americans have been united about anything in the last four years, it's in the frustration and disgust with the same tone-deaf partisan politics with which Australia currently struggles. Few want it to continue.

Yet it's hard to believe it won't. While the focus of everyone's attention has been on the presidential race, the real key to change in our political gridlock lies in the behavior of Congress. As long as the Republicans running the House of Representatives maintain their strategy of opposition at all costs, we all remain their hostages.

In his acceptance speech, Obama noted that 'America has never been about what can be done for us but what can be done by us.' That distinction may very well be the key for the United States over the next four years.

On issues like gun control, immigration, drone strikes, banking reform and voting procedures (which are riddled with problems), politicians on neither side are willing to lead. And like Australians, Americans are often at their best when they have something (or someone) to fight for and get down to the business of doing it.

At the end of the day, with all due respect for Obama's many gifts, we may be the only change we can believe in.

Jim McDermott is a former associate editor at America Magazine. He is currently studying screenwriting at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, US election, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney



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Jim McDermott's mention of the American Bishops' inept opposition to Obama, should remind Catholics that to be selected as a Bishop in the last decade is tantamount to being labelled as a "yes" man who will not rock any Roman boats and whose care of their flocks is subservient to keeping in good with the Vatican and maintaining that veneer of respectability that has always been a significant part of our church and was such a factor in the gross mishandling of clerical child abuse by the same type of Church leaders who are still the preferred choices of Rome.

grebo | 08 November 2012  

The Catholic "church" is increasingly becoming irrelevant, indifferent and not in touch with its own people. Evidently, "..bishops the country over insisted letters be read at Mass pushing congregations to vote Republican."

Hillan Nzioka | 08 November 2012  

Jim’s article today is excellent. I share his sense of relief and euphoria. As for the Catholic bishops' election advice – wow! This background sort of helps to explain Paul Ryan in Wisconsin I suppose. And of course we have a rough equivalent here in the Cardinal Pell/ Tony Abbott political affinity. But I am sure the good cardinal would never dream of advising Australian Catholics how to vote in a federal or NSW election ! Those days, thankfully, are long behind us. America has a real friend in Australia.

tony kevin | 08 November 2012  

The reference to the Catholics Bishops is worth close attention. The Bishops have a role to teach, and with respect to public/political issues they should shine the light of the Gospel on secular matters. However, trying to force people to vote for one party or another is beyond their mandate. Politics is rarely a single issue phenomenon, and voters have to weigh many issues in domestic and foreign policy as they discern how to vote. If the Catholic Bishops failed in their attempts to sway catholic voters towards one political party in the recent USA election, it may be that the narrow selection of moral issues on which the Bishops focused, were seen by Catholic voters against a background of lack of moral courage exhibited by the Bishops towards issues within the Catholic Church in the USA. Example is the best persuader. As St Francis once said:"Preach the Gospel always, and sometimes use words!"

Garry | 08 November 2012  

Yes, well it's good the Tea Party didn't win but what I heard from Obama was a series of inane one-liners that could have come from Romney had he won, meaningless pap that roused the chorus boys and girls all around the new president. However, if the actions of Abbott can be found in studying the Tea Party, then it looks as if Abbott's oppose all and everything will bring him undone. It's hard to think of Americans as cerebral voters, as with Australian voters, but with luck, as Pell-Jensen-ACL Power urges the flock to vote for Pell's little Catholic mate, enough electors will have enough brain cells to pay no attention to their calls. Of course, there is a warning about adoring idols, and US presidents are not exempt from this. Too much to expect electors took some responsibility for the politicians they elect, but if we all started to realise that electing some goon to a seat is far from the end of the contract, we'd all start to make headway. And didn't I hear Obama say exactly that at some stage in his hundred one liners acceptance speech?

janice wallace | 08 November 2012  

Jim has written an excellent commentary on the election result, and, most importantly, on the part played by the USA Catholic Bishops. The Bishops of the USA present as less united than our Australian Bishops. Probably there are so many more and with such a diverse set of Civic, State and Federal regulations which collar them in all their activities, "reasoned, respectful discourse" of a Bishop courageously, with firmness and charity, writing to his people may get judged just the opposite. And, of course, with the polarisation of support or opposition to some issues being dishonestly used by both political parties, it would be a matter of course that the Bishops' duty to inform Catholics on Catholic Church teaching will be skewed to suit the moment, instead of being seen to be the consistent position enunciated over a period much longer than an election campaign. Bishops should always be engaging their people and the many and varied Catholic organisations with reasoned and respectful discourse on the teachings of the Church in order to present as a united Church where all political parties offer the same in their dealings with the Church.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 08 November 2012  

Thank you Jim, and where are the alternatives? Republicans have shown they are looking backward and want to exclude and Democrats have the slogan "Forward" and want to include all minorities..Dylan's song, "The times they are a' changin'"is a perennial clarion call. The Catholic Church, a nation unto itself, has a hierachy with it's historical politcal base in old guard, old money; conservative as it defends and protects it's powerful affilliations, self-interest, and UN christian exclusivity,and worse claims to be ruling by Divine Right. I am not surprised bishops have decreed conservative values, too busy protecting their wealth they are so out of touch with human suffering.How can the Church ever claim to be working for social justice? Obama is the only hope for social justice and that means change.

Catherine | 08 November 2012  

During the last week of the US Presidential campaign and on voting day itself I was continually distracted by the thought - when Australia becomes a republic, it better not have a system with a populaly elected President, even if a non-executive one. It was hard to believe the US was on the edge of a "fiscal cliff". The length and expense of the campaign (and that does not include the Primaries) were unbelievable. If the time and the money were expended on debating and clarifying issues I would be less critical but the outcome seems to be a political Barnum and Bailey Circus with the same animals and acrobats performing the same tricks over and over, which the audience thinks is The Greatest Show on Earth because some illusionist (spin doctor) convinces them it is. Ironically Mitt Romney was right when he spoke about the 47% divide. He (or his strategy team) was wrong if he thought he could win by gaining a majority of the popular vote. Even in my Circus analogy some acts (States)had more entertainment value (Electoral College) votes than others. Obama is now the lonely Ringmaster of the Animals Cage (Congress). God Bless America!

Uncle Pat | 08 November 2012  

Just found this about the meddling priests: State funding of religion? Well, we already have that here in Australia but no doubt a denial of that will be seen as more 'persecution' of Christianity.

Andy Fitzharry | 08 November 2012  

Those bishops of the USA are beyond belief! I am truly shocked that they would advocate Catholics vote for "Gordon Gekko". How far away from Jesus have "Christians" travelled...

Val | 08 November 2012  

The debt in America is at unsustainable levels. This is largely due to the nubmer of people who look to the government to give them some form of welfare. The Democrat government, especially with Obamacare, has created the expectation of open-ended government support. Obama may well have said, 'America has never been about what can be done for us but what can be done by us.' However, I doubt that this is what many of his supporters are thinking as they look to his next term. I suspect that there will be more and more promsises about what the government will fix, more government, more spending, more debt. And as is usually the case with big government, there will be no noticeable improvement in the conditions of the poor, homeless and unemployed.

MJ | 08 November 2012  

What a truly curious stand from the US bishops. Here was a man who controlled the obscene capitalist(republican) excesses that ruined millions of people around the world through the global financial crisis with people losing their homes and well-being. Congratulations to the American bishops for undoubtedly driving even greaters numbers of Catholics away from their brand of Catholicism.

john frawley | 08 November 2012  

"The debt in America is at unsustainable levels. This is largely due to the" vast amount of money the USA spends on war and weapons. And did the Catholic bishops say much about that?

Russell | 08 November 2012  

'On issues like gun control, immigration, drone strikes, banking reform and voting procedures... politicians on neither side are willing to lead'. Nor, of course, are the bishops for whom concepts of morality appear to be exclusively related to sexuality.

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2012  

Gee, if only Mr McDermott had been around back in the day to advise St John Fisher, St Thomas Beckett and others like Thomas More and the prophet Isaiah about the possibilities of "reasoned discourse" (his version), they might all have doubled their life spans here on earth, retired on a fat state pension and died of natural causes. I suppose, too, if Sandy had not happened when it did, the msm had been a tad less outrageously skewed towards Obama, and it was Romney who scored that massive, jaw-dropping 50.4 % to 48.1% endorsement in the popular vote, Mr McDermott would be praising the bishops for their principled stance?

HH | 08 November 2012  

I think, HH, that if you re-read Jim's article you will find that he is not attacking any 'principled stance', but rather suggesting that if the bishops wish to communicate effectively with a thinking electorate then they should reconsider the ways in which they seek to persuade voters both within and without the church.

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2012  

The short remarks about the American Catholic Bishops don't tell the whole story. While the US Catholic Bishops have a vocal core of right-wing enthusiasts, they are in the minority.

There are a significant number of US Catholic Bishops promulgating the 'consistent ethic of life' which looks at valuing life 'from womb to tomb'.

While this accords with the pro-life sensibilities of fundamentalist Christians on the right, it also accords with the anti-death penalty values of the 'liberals' on the left of the political spectrum. It also accords with many issues throughout life: compassion for migrants, support for universal healthcare ('left' causes) and resistance to Government stipulating requirements for Catholic employers to provide contraception in their health care plans (a cause of the 'right').

I agree with Jim's statement that Catholic Bishops taking a non-issues-based, partisan stance is a dubious strategy.

Moira Byrne Garton | 08 November 2012  

Under Barack Obama's presidency, USA external debt rose to 16 Trillion dollars. The USA is facing economic disaster, they no longer produce what they need to sustain themselves. 22.8 Million Americans are now unemployed. The number of Americans receiving the (Food Stamps) hit a new high of almost 47 Millions. I have the greatest respect and admiration for USA Catholic Bishops who opposed Barack Obama, issuing the final rule under the (PPACA) that requires many health insurers to charge all enrollees for elective Abortions. Under the act millions of American taxpayers will be forced to help support abortion coverage. Barack Obama' victory's speech, did not forget to mention who does he stands for including the gays, so obviously he also stands for same sex marriage. I did not hear if he stood for freedom of religion, and stop forcing Catholics paying for elective abortions. Thank God that the next Federal Election in Australia will be held within the next year. I know one thing; Australians Catholics will take notice of how important it is to listen to the American Catholic Bishops to retain our Chritian/Judeo culture.

Ron Cini | 08 November 2012  

@Russell. I agree with you. It is both and not either or. The venture of the Americans into both Iraq and Afghanistan was ill-advised. It has been worth neither the cost in lives or money.

MJ | 08 November 2012  

Obama care in his mandate will not bring about social justice but rather imbalance @catherine. The bishop just reminded american catholic voters who have lost their sense of catholicism to live unity of life and be catholic while deciding what ideologies(abortives sterilization etc) they are voting for. The bishop were not endorsing any candidate but endorsing religious liberty which they started before the electionering process and would continue after the electionering process. When the church comes out to condemn evil people will naturally condemn the church it is normal because jesus also was condemned by men.

jeffery omorodion | 08 November 2012  

GM, re. the bishops, McDermott's thesis is that because the electorate has not heeded the US bishops, their approach has thus been "repudiated" and they should reconsider their strategy. But maybe, just maybe, the electorate is repudiating because it doesn't want to heed - the message being too damn challenging and inconvenient. Just as, I said, with those hearing the message of Fisher, More, Beckett, Isaiah, and, well, Jesus Christ Himself. Hey, any advice on an alternative P.R. approach the Messiah might have taken? And what's this supposedly blindingly obvious "reasoned, respectful discourse" alternative course the U.S. bishops should be taking? How do you recommend they sell the Catholic line, without compromising principle in any way, that co-operating beyond a trivial extent in abortion and contraception is intrinsically evil, and that a political party's specific proposal to coerce participation in same by Catholic institutions is to be totally resisted? I've got an idea. What if all the bishops said it in season and out of season, with all priests and religious in support. And they ran classes for young and old, and support networks, and prayer and study groups, and no-one could teach RE who didn't agree to uphold the doctrines, and anyone who wrote or taught otherwise was censured, and "Catholic" politicians who opposed fundamental church teachings were excommunicated and the reasons for the penalty clearly explained. Is that the alternative approach what you had in mind? If so, I entirely agree.

HH | 08 November 2012  

Why be so aggressive HH? I had no 'alternative approach' in mind. I was simply suggesting that you may have mis-read Jim's article if you thought that he was 'attacking' either the bishops or their principles or their stance. As I understood his article, he was questioning the efficacy of their approach and suggesting that they might do well to reconsider and seek a more efficacious approach. That's all, nothing more sinister.

Ginger Meggs | 09 November 2012  

Dear HH, if the bishops spoke “in and out of season” without let-up, I think you would find that even more than at present would turn off from their message out of sheer annoyance, much like one gets to the point when someone keeps playing a record over and over....and over again. This part of your alternative strategy is what I call “proselytism by decibel”. Your faith in the ability of a message to convince or persuade by sheer volume and repetition is, I think, unfounded. But that you are not content that they simply try to persuade by bombardment is revealed by your proposition that the bishops pronounce excommunications left-right-and-centre: this is “proselytism by fatwa” and I believe is equally misguided.

There is spectacular disagreement with and/or distaste for your pin-up bishops in the USA, so perhaps they might indeed be well advised to examine their own positions and ask themselves why they fail to convince? As the saying goes, it “takes two to tango”.

smk | 09 November 2012  

GM, McDermott trails his coat. He maintains the bishops didn't engage in "respectful discourse". This is manifestly not true. You can read their statements about concerns over Obamacare all over the internet - statements about ethical principles and how Obamacare violates those. It was the Obama administration that refused to "respectful(ly) discourse" with the U.S. Bishops but just dumped the policy on them at the eleventh hour and gave them the date they would be required to implement. So what McDermott can only mean by "respectful discourse" is compromising on funding of abortion and contraception. Don't forget: he's from the "America" stable, which is about as forthright in its defence of Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception as, say, the National Catholic Reporter or the UK Tablet, or some of our friends around here. (P.S. That is not meant to be a compliment.)

HH | 09 November 2012  

HH, why do you get so angry when a contrary view is expressed? You say that Jim says that the bishops 'did not engage in respectful discourse'. You say that this is 'manifestly not true'. OK, so you differ. The point that Jim was making was that whatever the bishops did do was ineffective in so far as they did not achieve their political objective and that they might consider adopting a more effective communication strategy in future. But in any case, Jim's article was not primarily about what the bishops said or didn't say, or what they achieved or didn't achieve, but about the remaining problem of the political gridlock resulting from the behaviour of the Republicans in the Congress. And I suspect that the consequences of that intransigence are about to hit us all in a matter of weeks.

Ginger Meggs | 10 November 2012  

So unborn babies are being used as a political decoy to manipulate Catholic voters now - to blackmail them into voting for an extreme right-wing Republican Party that has no interest in maintaining an economy where poorer families can thrive. If you vote for fairer economic policies - you stand accused of participating in the death of unborn babies - isn't politics/religion sick?

AURELIUS | 10 November 2012  

SMK, the U.S. bishops as a bloc have notoriously not preached and acted against abortion and contraception with the exception of a scant few, and those only lately. Likewise their clergy who have been equally remiss, if not positively antagonistic. Given the disastrous record of U.S. Catholics re. these two issues, I don't see that not preaching has been all that successful a strategy. You may be uncomfortable with Catholics being constantly taught that abortion is murder, and contraception gravely sinful, but the record of the prophets, the saints, and Christ Himself seems to be: preach the truth in season and out of season. And let him who has ears to hear, hear.

HH | 10 November 2012  

No, HH, I am not uncomfortable with bishops telling me that abortion is murder. That would seem to imply that somehow deep down I think their simplistic proposition is true (or that their proposition is simplistically true), which I don’t. No, I am merely contemptuous that they are so simplistic and don’t see it, and by what I think largely motivates their partisanship: not so much genuine concern for the unborn in any particular case, but the maintenance of an ideological settlement which includes a church of the establishment and status quo. They are feeling the loss of their authority and credibility but do not see that less is more and that in this age power is often the offspring of moral humility, and instead operate by what amounts to little more than ecclesiastical tantrum. If they really want to be counter-cultural, they really ought to consider how else they might distinguish themselves from the rest of the herd of strident dogmatists we all (yourself excepted of course) become from time to time.

smk | 12 November 2012  

SMK, you're too polite. I am a "strident dogmatist" on abortion, just as I am on, say, the resurrection and on transubstantiation. I'm a Catholic, and that involves a simplistic proposition: to be pro-abortion is (for a Catholic) to be a heretic. It seems you claim to have a really good counter-intuitive strategy for the American bishops, whereby if they proffer the pro-life stance as a really small target, they'll gain a much better leverage on the pro-life issue. Being pro-life myself, I'm all ears. What is this strategy, and are there any historical precedents?

HH | 13 November 2012  

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