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American Adam

Obama and the cult of the new.

Charles Ommanney/Getty
Democratic Senator Barack Obama talks to guest at the Chicago Economic Club on December 8, 2004 in Chicago, Illinois.
For the past twenty years, John B. Judis has served as The New Republic’s in-house grump. As a veteran of the Berkeley left, he sees the world differently than the rest of us. With his training in Marxist dialectics—the substance of which he abandoned a long time ago—he thinks about capitalized History and can pick out the trends within it. He’s also immune to some of the faddish thinking that occasionally afflicts the rest of us. During the 2008 presidential primaries, he and Leon Wieseltier were the only members of the staff who resisted the euphoria surrounding Barack Obama’s candidacy. This essay was Judis’s attempt to understand everyone else’s enthusiasm.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

When Barack Obama announced a year ago that he was running for president, I scoffed. How could a black man whose middle name is Hussein and who looks like he is 25 years old win the White House? To be sure, he was a U.S. senator, but he had been elected largely on a fluke when his toughest Democratic and Republican opponents were felled by scandals. “He’ll fade by December,” I assured anyone who would listen.

One year later, Obama is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, having built a formidable coalition of whites and blacks, Democrats and independents, and even a few stray Republicans. As the only major candidate to oppose the Iraq war before it started, he appeals to the large number of Democrats who want the United States to withdraw. African Americans threw him their support after he demonstrated in Iowa that he could attract white votes. And college-educated whites have flocked to him en masse.

But Obama has done more than cobble together a political coalition. He has made himself into a political phenomenon, the likes of which the country has not seen since Ronald Reagan. He fills stadiums. His rallies--where he asks the crowd to “stand up for change” and it responds by shouting, “Yes we can!”--are like revival meetings. He has inspired thousands of volunteers and dramatically boosted turnout rates, particularly among young voters. Al Gore and John Kerry, the last two Democratic nominees, certainly never attracted this kind of following.

While I worry about Obama’s inexperience, I haven’t been immune to his charms. When I have gone to see him speak or watched him on television, he has invariably given more or less the same speech about “fundamental change” and “choos[ing] the future over the past.” Yet, each time, I find myself listening raptly, even after the sixth or seventh reiteration of the same slogans and catchwords. It is partly his voice and his cadences, but there has to be more to it than that. And there is.

Obama is the candidate of the new--a “new generation,” a “new leadership,” a “new kind of politics,” to borrow phrases he has used. But, in emphasizing newness, Obama is actually voicing a very old theme. When he speaks of change, hope, and choosing the future over the past, when he pledges to end racial divisions or attacks special interests, Obama is striking chords that resonate deeply in the American psyche. He is making a promise to voters that is as old as the country itself: to wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch.

Looming over all of American history--but particularly the country’s formative years--is the Biblical figure of Adam, the only person, according to the West’s major religions, to have lived unburdened by what came before him. As literary critic R.W.B. Lewis wrote in 1955, in his wonderful book The American Adam, early generations of Americans became captivated by the idea that they could create a future without reference to the past. The revolutionaries who fought for America’s independence saw themselves as breaking not only with the Old World but with history itself. “The case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of a world,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1792. Thomas Jefferson believed the new nation should regularly renew itself, arguing that, if necessary, “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed ... with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” But, as Lewis explains, it was after the War of 1812--after the United States had finally cut loose from Great Britain and other foreign entanglements--that the notion of a country unbound from the constraints of history really began to take root. Democratic Review--the magazine of a nineteenth-century progressive movement known as Young America--captured this sentiment in 1839, when it editorialized, “[O]ur national birth was the beginning of a new history ... which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.”

According to this line of thought, each generation of Americans could always start over and transform their country. In a lecture in Boston in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson described politics as a clash between “the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation” or between “a Conservative and a Radical.” “It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason,” Emerson explained. “Conservatism stands on man’s confessed limitations; reform on his indisputable infinitude.” At the time Emerson was giving his lecture, it was the Democratic Party that claimed the mantle of innovation and reform. The heirs of Andrew Jackson believed that, in expanding American democracy over the continent, they were creating a new world that would eventually eclipse the old. “The expansive future is our arena,” wrote Democratic Review. “We are entering on its untrodden space ... with a clear conscience unsullied by the past.”

In his Studies in Classic American Literature, which appeared in 1923, D.H. Lawrence identified the celebration of the new and the rejection of the old as “the true myth of America.” According to this myth, Lawrence wrote, America “starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth.” The myth of America as Adam runs through our country’s literature--from Walt Whitman’s self-description as a “chanter of Adamic songs / Through the new garden the West,” to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby to Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. And it reemerges periodically in American politics--usually during times of upheaval or discontent.

In the early 1960s, after three recessions in a decade and the apparent loss of America’s lead in space, President John F. Kennedy sounded the tocsin of change: “Change is the law of life,” he said. “And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Later, amid the growing unrest created by the Vietnam war, an Adamic culture took root among the revolutionaries of the New Left, who imagined revolution to be imminent. “The foundation of civilization is growing here,” declared a spokesman for the Diggers, a San Francisco communal organization, adding, “Hope is ... the foundation of it.”

Today, the conditions seem propitious for another Adamic moment: six years of fruitless war, the looming prospect of another recession, a political system paralyzed by partisanship. Enter Barack Obama, the latest representative of Emerson’s party of innovation, radical reform, and hope. He has appropriated these older themes and translated them into the political rhetoric of the early twenty-first century: “Hope and change have been the causes of my life.” “Hope is the bedrock of this nation: the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” “There is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past.” “People want to turn the page. They want to write a new chapter in American history.” And so on.

Obama’s youthful unlined face, his exotic name, and his unusual upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia by a white mother and grandparents, black father, and Indonesian stepfather contribute to the sense that he can give the United States a fresh start. He is like Herman Melville’s Adamic hero, Billy Budd, a foundling who was “happily endowed with the gayety of high health, youth and a free heart” and “looked even younger than he really was.”

Of course, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins has remarked, some voters are repelled by a promise of fundamental change. “Women--especially older women--are often politically risk-averse,” she writes. But many voters, particularly among the young, have been enthralled by Obama’s message. They flock to rallies festooned with banners trumpeting CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN. In an article in the Suffolk University student newspaper, Andrew Favreau compared Obama’s campaign to “the movement that my parents lived through back in the 60s, and that I had wished I had the opportunity to experience. ... What I’m interested in is that millions of people believe again. They believe in America, and they believe in one another, but more importantly they are filling themselves with hope.”

Journalists and politicians appear drawn to the same qualities. Responding to the charge that Obama lacks experience, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg wrote that “experience is a problematic argument, especially when voters are hungry for a new beginning.” Former Connecticut Senate candidate Ned Lamont said of Obama, “I’ve fallen for him. I like the fact that he brings a fresh perspective to Washington. I love the idea that he gives us a fresh start around the world.” New beginning, fresh perspective, fresh start: These are sentiments that Americans of the post-1812 generation would have recognized as their own.

As it turned out, the idealism of the early nineteenth century would ultimately be thwarted by an issue that has bedeviled every generation of Americans before and since: race. Today, nearly two centuries later, there is probably no other topic on which Americans’ need for a clean break with the past is so acute--no issue on which we crave an Adam figure quite so much. And many Americans believe they have found that figure in Obama.

While some white voters have rejected Obama because he is black, plenty of others have been more inclined to vote for him for the same reason. These are whites who grew up in the shadow of the ‘60s civil rights movement and who came to venerate Martin Luther King, observing his birthday as a national holiday. They yearn for racial reconciliation, and they see voting for Obama as a means to achieve that.

There are no polls to measure this sentiment, but it pops up repeatedly in interviews. One Obama supporter told The Washington Post at a campaign event in Tampa, Florida, that he hoped “someday we’ll erase all this nonsense about race. “ His support for Obama, he said, was “reverse prejudice. It’s just about time that someone of color got some credibility in a race like this for president.” Joe Lance, an independent, wrote on a Tennessee website that he was backing Obama “because he transcends the old divides between black and white Americans. ... It is thrilling to imagine that in electing this person to the highest office, we could see centuries’ worth of animosity and despair start to melt.”

Such ideas underlie enthusiastic newspaper endorsements of Obama. The Dallas Morning News wrote, “[I]t is undeniable that America has failed to heal its racial wounds, including here in Dallas. We need a motivated leader capable of confronting the problem, and no candidate is better equipped than Mr. Obama. His message isn’t about anger and retribution. It’s about moving forward.” In its endorsement, the Los Angeles Times noted that “[a]n Obama presidency would present, as a distinctly American face, a man of African descent, born in the nation’s youngest state, with a childhood spent partly in Asia, among Muslims.”

Not any African American could have created such high hopes for racial reconciliation, but Obama’s background has made him especially well-suited to capitalize on these sentiments. He is at once part of black America and also removed from it and from its political history--an Adam figure with respect to the country’s oldest and most painful conflict.

Although born to a Kenyan father and white mother, Obama is a black American and a black American politician. In the United States, blackness has always been a social rather than an ethnic category, so that, if someone looks black and has some African blood, he is black, even if one of his parents was white. “If I’m outside your building trying to catch a cab,” Obama told interviewer Charlie Rose, “they’re not saying, ‘Oh, there’s a mixed race guy.’”

At the same time, Obama was brought up by white relatives, lived in Hawaii, and attended elite schools. His divergence from previous black politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton comes out most clearly in his unwillingness to embrace race-specific remedies or any program that smacks of reparations. “An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics,” Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, which he published on the eve of the campaign. Obama also has little of the typical black politician’s underlying outlook. Many black politicians descend from slaves brought from West Africa. That is part of their frame of reference when speaking about the United States. Jackson, for instance, reminded Michael Dukakis, his rival for the Democratic nomination in 1988, that his ancestors had come over on “slave ships” while Dukakis’s had arrived on “immigrant ships. “ Just before the Democratic convention that year, miffed that Dukakis had passed him over for the vice presidency, Jackson claimed that the Massachusetts governor wanted to use him as a “vote picker” to bring his followers to the “big house.” Obama, by contrast, is the son of an East African whose ancestors were not shipped to the New World as slaves. He wouldn’t simply shun these kind of metaphors; they probably wouldn’t occur to him because they aren’t part of his political heritage. To put it in Adamic terms, he is outside of America’s racial history and conveys little resentment over his own racial past.

As he tells it, Obama’s message is very much that of the successful immigrant who has miraculously transcended the racial divide. Speaking in the town in Kansas in which his maternal grandfather grew up, Obama said:

Our family’s story is one that spans miles and generations, races and realities. It’s the story of farmers and soldiers, city workers and single moms. It takes place in small towns and good schools, in Kansas and Kenya, on the shores of Hawaii and the streets of Chicago. It’s a varied and unlikely journey, but one that’s held together by the same simple dream. And that is why it’s American. That’s why I can stand here and talk about how this country is more than a collection of red states and blue states--because my story could only happen in the United States.

When white Americans hear these words, they don’t feel guilt about past injustices, but rather hope for racial reconciliation.

Interestingly, should he make it to the general election, Obama will face someone who once had an analogous appeal to voters on a different issue. In the 2000 Republican primary, John McCain held out the prospect of ending the three-decade schism in American politics over the Vietnam war. As a former prisoner of war who also led the effort to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam, McCain was an Adam figure in his own right--someone who could have, in theory, wiped the slate clean on a question that had haunted American politics for a generation. His fervent embrace of the Iraq war probably vitiates that appeal in 2008, but much of the enthusiasm Baby Boomers felt for McCain in 2000 stemmed from the promise of reconciliation over Vietnam that his campaign implicitly held out. This year, Obama’s campaign offers a similar promise--but on a far more profound conflict that spans generations.

There is one last way in which Obama appeals to the American craving for an Adam figure: He has campaigned not just against the current occupant of the White House, but against Washington itself. Obama denounces the “dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth.” He promises to “overcome the power of lobbyists and special interests.” He criticizes Republicans and Democrats for excessive partisanship and vows to end the divide in Washington by bringing “Democrats, Republicans, and independents together.” In short, he sets forth a vision of Washington shorn of special interests in which politicians pursue a nonpartisan agenda that reflects the public will.

These sentiments--a general distrust of government and a specific hostility to political parties--go back to America’s founding. Paine wrote that government, “even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Jefferson wrote of political parties, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” The Jacksonians invented and celebrated the modern party system, but they shared Paine’s disdain for government itself. During the years that followed, Americans’ wariness toward both government and political parties would endure. And, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, this suspicion of lasting institutions is closely linked to Americans’ dismissal of the past.

Obama is hardly the first politician in recent memory to place himself within this tradition. Jimmy Carter in 1976 (who promised a “government as good as its people”), John Anderson in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, Jerry Brown in 1980 and 1992, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Bill Bradley in 2000 each attempted to highlight their opposition to government as usual, and sometimes to political parties as well. In the mid-’80s, the late political consultant Alan Baron and CNN analyst William Schneider characterized this single-minded focus on cleaning up government as “radical centrism” (a phrase that has since become a cliche) since many of its practitioners, epitomized by Anderson, were quite moderate in the substantive policies they proposed but radical in their general attitude toward government.

Radical centrism has now developed its own constituency within the electorate. Independents currently make up about one-third of all voters. Fifty years ago, they tended primarily to be younger voters who hadn’t yet decided which party to support. That’s still the case for some--but, for many independents, the label has become a political statement in its own right, on par with calling oneself a Democrat or a Republican.

In 1992, some of these voters flocked to Ross Perot. In 2000, a plurality of them supported George W. Bush, with his promise to be a “uniter, not a divider, “ over the Washington-tainted Al Gore. But, in 2006, angered by Republican scandals, they came roaring back to the Democrats, whom they supported in congressional races by 57 to 39 percent. Obama is a perfect fit for these voters. Independents are well represented at Obama’s rallies, and, in the primaries and caucuses where they have been allowed to vote, they have overwhelmingly supported him. He lost California, but carried independents by 58 to 34 percent. In states he has won, the margins were even larger--64 to 33 percent in Wisconsin and 67 to 30 percent in Missouri. One independent, writing on a Minnesota website, summed up Obama’s Adamic appeal this way: “Obama is a true leader not spoiled by years in the beltway.”

Like that last great Adamic Democrat, John Kennedy, Obama is running on the cusp of a new political movement. His campaign is very much a descendant of Howard Dean’s primary effort in 2004 and of the political movement that preceded and grew up around it--including, Dean for America (now Democracy for America), and the networks of bloggers that promote and raise money for Democratic campaigns. This movement has expanded during the last three years, but, if Obama were to win the nomination, it could burst forth in the way that the New Left of the ‘60s grew after Kennedy and in the way that a new conservatism spread after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Call it progressive or liberal--whatever it is, this movement could provide a countervailing force to the Republican alliance of social conservatives and business that dominated Congress from 1994 to 2006. That is the underlying promise of Obama’s campaign.

But not all candidates who promise a break with the past succeed. For every John Kennedy, there is a Jerry Brown or Ross Perot. Obama could still fail to win the nomination, or, if he wins the nomination, he could lose in the general election. He has yet to weather the kind of attacks on his character and associations that will come from Republicans. And the ranks of those who resist a call to “fundamental change” could certainly swell during a general election that would pit the party of youth against the party of experience--and a young black man with a Muslim-sounding middle name against an aged and revered war hero who has been in the Senate since 1986.

Even if Obama manages to win, he could very well fail as president. Just as the hopes of Jacksonian Democrats were shattered by the irrepressible conflict over slavery, Obama’s dreams--and his movement--could founder in Iraq and the Middle East. Obama himself seems to be of two minds on Iraq. In The Audacity of Hope, he declares that America’s “strategic goals” should be “achieving some semblance of stability in Iraq, ensuring that those in power in Iraq are not hostile to the United States, and preventing Iraq from becoming a base for terrorist activities.” That would suggest a very cautious strategy for withdrawal. But, in his presidential campaign, he has wooed antiwar Democrats with a promise to start withdrawing from Iraq immediately. Once in office, he would have to weigh his strategic goals against his promise to withdraw--while very likely facing a military, with which he has had little experience, determined to continue the fight until it is won.

Obama’s commitment to radical centrism could also be severely tested. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed the support of popular movements, gave priority to getting their substantive legislative agendas adopted; and they succeeded by uniting their supporters and dividing their opponents. If they had focused first on uniting Democrats and Republicans behind common objectives, they probably would not have gotten their way. And, if they had initially turned their attention, as Obama has proposed, to “the most sweeping ethics reform in history,” it is unlikely they would have passed public works spending (Roosevelt) or tax cuts (Reagan). Jimmy Carter, too, provides a cautionary tale: The last Democrat to take office on a radical centrist agenda, Carter failed to tame Congress or K Street and was defeated for reelection. He had campaigned for the presidency on the presumption that reformers could overturn the status quo in Washington. In the end, he turned out to be wrong.

The American instinct to continuously remake ourselves in the image of Adam--to achieve a decisive and final break with history--has periodically proven seductive to voters. And, sometimes, this instinct can produce important, transformative results. Yet the past--in the form of race or war or deeply held partisan animosities--has a way of lingering around. At the very least, it rarely recedes without a bitter fight. None of which is to say that Barack Obama will fail. He has already defied the expectations of wizened political journalists like me who believed he had no chance to win the nomination. If he becomes president, he will have a chance to prove me wrong again: to show that the party of youth and hope and change can govern effectively. No one will be more delighted than I will if he succeeds.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.