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Obama's audacious ambition

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

What do we know after the first century (of days) of Barack Obama?

We know that he is the one of the most ambitious men to enter the White House. With most who achieved the office, the presidency itself was the capstone, the end peak, of their ambition. They governed, reacted to crises, and retired from the scene - either to write the inevitable "my case" memoirs, or to parlay their days in office (Bill Clinton) into a celebrity industry fuelling their arrival on the lush slopes of plutocracy.

Barack Obama is different. Winning the presidency was just the warm-up tour. This guy has grander designs, bigger plans, vaster goals than his predecessors, even wartime presidents. The latter had great moments - in Shakespeare's blunt description - thrust upon them. With Mr. Obama, the huge designs are all of his own intent. He is the self-directed agent of his own incomparable ambition.

He is altering the DNA of American capitalism. He intends to move to public medicine. He has equal ambitions in education. He is committed to retooling the energy foundations of the re-eminent economy of the world. These are elective choices, all set in motion in a mere 100 days.

The scope of that ambition is there to see, even if his cool manner and casual demeanour disinclines most to register the evidence. He's a bit of a magician, a deft misdirectionist.

The compelling aura that surrounded him in the campaign was generated mainly because he embodied the almost inexpressible hope that America would finally achieve racial equanimity. His election would personify - literally - that America had finally triumphed over its own slavery-compromised beginning. This lent his campaign an almost transcendental appeal, invested him with the mystique of a transforming personality.

No wonder then that so many embraced him, that the emotions he called up were, for very many, not emotions associated with politics as we normally understand it. Looked at in retrospect, how could Hillary Clinton hope, with her grinder's style, to compete against a redemptive candidate, a symbolic personality?

His candidacy tapped into the deepest moral reserves of the American population. He was special, but special only in this emblematic domain, as a candidate or a presence that embodied the potential to heal the primal wound in America's political and social psyche. Hope and change were echo words from the depths of American moral aspiration.

He wasn't pitching "ordinary" politics. The legion of Obamaphiles were not charged up by the thought that this was the guy to fix the banking system. There was no slogan I can recall that said: Vote Obama, the best manager GM is ever likely to see.

The magician's touch has been to exploit that aura, to take the "hope" that people saw in him as an agent of racial reconciliation and transfer its energies and charisma to a different and discrete agenda: a wholesale remaking of the political system - on grounds other than, and far removed from, race. It's a kind of political leveraging that Mr. Obama is very good at, and we have very rarely seen. He is singular. He shifts the terms of things, transfers the need for action on one issue, to an occasion or cover for transformative action on others.

The financial emergency may be looked upon as the greatest sleight of hand in modern or any other politics. The crisis was real - not incidentally, still is, and hot as ever. But Mr. Obama has taken the angst and anxiety of the financial crisis, with the attendant "permission" it gave him for drastic action, and transferred that permission to the overhaul of medical care, education, the wholesale redefinition of energy policy and the imposition of a vast government presence in the operation of American business.

It is, ironically, the so-called "shock doctrine" in action, manipulating a crisis to enact an agenda. Ironically, because it's not dark Cheneyesque "neo-cons" doing the dazzling shuffle, but the great bright vessel of "social justice" and change.

The other example of his magician's touch is the numbers. Mr. Obama has changed arithmetic. We never spoke, except in fantasy or astronomy, of trillions before. Now a trillion is an everyday number. A billion is change on the bureau. This President can empty the vaults of the richest nation on earth and it all seems ... so natural. He is supercharging the responsibilities of government by outlays that will imprint the future operation of the system for decades.

This is Ozymandian ambition, or the ambition of an Alexander who wept when there were no more worlds to conquer. With ambition on the Obama scale, there will be tears at the end too - either his, that nothing will remain to engage him, or from those who will bear the price of his audacious ambition should the whole great experiment tumble and fail.

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