Reclining on my couch a few nights ago after a long day at the Trib office, I exhaled deeply upon reading the news that the Obama Administration will continue enforcing federal drug laws in the state of California even if its voters next month pass Proposition 19. If passed, this referendum would legalize the use of marijuana for non-medicinal purposes, and permit the financially-beleaguered state to tax and regulate its sale. I reacted thus not because my lungs were filled with a righteous rip I may or may not have previously taken off a spliff, but because I’d been waiting for months to see what the Obama administration’s take on the issue would be, and was seriously disappointed when I found out what it was.
The story of the congressional elections taking place November 2 will be one of serious loss for Obama and the Democrats, mostly because of something called the “enthusiasm gap,” which describes why the Republicans seem to be so excited for the election and the Democrats so deflated. Observers point to statistics showing that Obama’s base—everyone from the taken-for-granted African-American voters to the normally apathetic college-age crowd—is largely alienated and unmotivated to come to the Democrats’ rescue. As a member of the latter group, I think I may be able to explain that absence of motivation. And it’s not caused wholly by the spliff.
Obama rode into office on a wave of support from people very much like me: blue-state, progressive-leaning, 18-24 year olds who thought he was pretty much the shit. That’s how I remember most people my age expressing their support for him: he was the shit, or unfathomably cool. Even still I think of Obama the person as fundamentally committed to the proliferation of good vibes as he is to ceasing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We know for a fact that he sneaks cigarettes in the Rose Garden because the Mrs. won’t let him smoke in the house. He called a cop “stupid,” and then placated him with beer. Stevie Wonder basically lives at the White House. To all appearances, Obama is my kind of president.
As a passionate Obama supporter since the day after the Iowa caucuses, I remember being extremely sensitive to every insinuation that my loyalty was more religious than rational, essentially no more thought-through than my decision to like or not like any other pop culture trend. I was extremely piqued when Hillary Clinton mocked the Obama campaign in New Hampshire, by summarizing its message as, “Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The lights will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.” She was so frustratingly right—that’s exactly what it felt like.
By most accounts, the enthusiasm gap is the result of Obama’s failure to follow through on specific campaign promises (closing Guantanamo Bay, not drastically extending the powers of the surveillance state, etc.), as well as a more abstract buyers’ remorse unrelated to any explicit utterances by Obama himself.
If so, it seems this liberal disillusionment is the inevitable result of the realities of the American political system, and can be more or less conceptually disconnected from the actual political figure that is Obama. As the former New York governor Mario Cuomo has noted, a politician campaigns in poetry but governs in prose. If our reaction to buzzkilling Obama policies is, “This aggression will not stand, man,” that’s fine – but it’s not really a serious response.
Especially now that corporations can secretly contribute as much as they want to sway elections this way or that, the American political system doesn’t allow for the kind of transformational change that young progressives like myself wanted to see on the blank slate that Obama the candidate admitted he was. In light of the fact that the alcoholic beverages lobby is the primary contributor to the anti-Prop 19 campaign, it’s not very interesting to condemn Obama or the dozens of other major political figures who have lined up against the initiative.
Obama has seriously harshed my groove in the last two years—on the marijuana policy and many other far more important issues, too. But what did I expect? At this point, I barely even remember.