It has now been about half a year since the transition from one presidential administration to another, perhaps time to get a little perspective on things.

Seen from here in June 2009, the reign of W seems a bit like something from another world. The whole tone of things is different in the Obama presidency. That much is obvious, but I’ve been trying to figure out the precise nature of this tonal difference, the underlying fundamental principle that distinguishes then and now.

I don’t think it’s just about political left versus right, liberal versus conservative, although clearly that is a big part of it. I wasn’t really sure what it was until the recent revelations about the two Republican presidential hopefuls who were caught out having extramarital affairs, pretty much back to back.

And that’s when I realized that what W’s presidency offered the country, first and foremost, was a kind of Puritan certainty, a reassurance that Sin had left the building – not only in his policies but in his tone. The “decider” clearly believed he was getting his marching orders from a higher authority.

This might be connected to to our former president’s history with alcoholism. There was a strictness to his views, and this strictness suffused through everything – all of his decisions and policies.

The engagement with sin and redemption was not new, of course. Bill Clinton was clearly playing out a grand narrative of sin and redemption throughout his presidency.

That entire dialectic has now receded. Obama brings a far more secular tone to the White House. No longer is the Devil standing over the shoulder of our highest ranking government official, ready to pounce. Obama is neither the unyielding patriarch of the Bush years nor the failed penitant that Clinton projected. The whole gothic focus on sin, on a personal struggle against Evil, is gone.

For example, it would have been nearly unimaginable to see W taking a drink. So much of his public persona was predicated on his absolute renunciation of the habit that had once brought him low. And this certainty, this refusal to engage with the Devil, crept into all of his policies.

Obama, on the other hand, is able to effectively push legislation that prevents tobacco companies from marketing to children, while openly admitting to smoking the occasional cigarette – his personal struggle with an unwanted addiction.

It all has a far more secular tone. I think it is this sounding of a secular note, despite the fact that Obama is a religious man, that has been appealing so strongly to young people. Rather than seeing the world as an eternal struggle between a stern and wrathful God and the evil forces of fire and brimstone, the citizenry is being asked to see a struggle simply to make the world a better place, without all the trappings of old time religious sturm und drang.

Seen from this new perspective, one driven not so much by stern moralizing as by can-do optimism, the receding world of W begins to seem far away indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *