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Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)
Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)

Rex Murphy

Obama on the flying trapeze Add to ...

He flies through the air with the greatest of ease,

the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

We've been watching over the past two weeks, willingly or not, the wrong icon. Michael Jackson's a distraction. Barack Obama is the superstar of the world, the real celebrity. And because he's President of the world's foremost power (for now), his actions have real, not just symbolic, meaning.

We've seen him in action for a bit more than six months. What we can say with confidence, now that we have the evidence of his actions, is that had he run on (a) transforming the U.S. economy by massive federal government intervention, (b) taking an owner's stake in the automobile industry, (c) transforming the rules of America's energy economy, (d) instituting a national health-care system - all of these simultaneously and in the centre of a financial meltdown - Barack Obama wouldn't merely have lost the election, he wouldn't have got as many votes as gnarly old Ross Perot did in an election long past. He wouldn't, in other words, have beaten a bad-tempered, egotistical spoiler.

We have also seen enough to make some observations on the observations of his once and now-no-more mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. You will remember when the ravings of Mr. Wright finally got too much for the candidate, when the more pacific words of the "great speech" on race that he could "no more disown him than I can my white grandmother" were rendered inoperative by Mr. Wright's persistently obnoxious presence. Mr. Obama pushed him aside.

The pastor had one last shot of his own about his onetime "son." That was the line, "He's a politician; I'm a pastor. He's got to do what politicians do." We know what he meant by "politician": one who is "forced" to say one thing to get elected, and do another; a person who conceals an agenda under cloudy rhetoric, a person whose calling - politics - is implicitly, essentially, deceptive.

The description is faithful to the commonplace understanding of "politician" today. It matches the stereotype, because the stereotype is a match for (most) of the reality. Mr. Wright may have been wrong in very much, but he knew his "son." Mr. Obama is a politician, and very much a politician in that harsh, unflattering and somewhat cruel understanding Mr. Wright gave the term.

Mr. Obama has taken the real crisis of the U.S. (and world) economy and used it as the screen and lever for a massive agenda of transformation, a transformation that calls for expenditures on a scale never before seen in the history of government on this planet. The first expenditure, which began under George Bush's tenure, was large, but it was very specific. The financial "infrastructure" of America's economy was about to be exploded, and it was argued that government "had no choice" but to shore up the financial institutions without which there would be utter chaos in the overall economy. That was the genesis of the so-called bank bailout. After that came the stimulus package, the attempt to kick-start jobs, to get those "shovel ready" projects "out the door." Both had to be done immediately. There was no time for review or oversight.

These initiatives, however, were almost instantly overlaid with the Obama agenda of massive government expansion, or attempted expansion, into everything from the auto industry to health care - all of them sold with cries of urgency and executed with reckless haste. Massive bills were passed before there were even copies of them to read. The U.S. government's debt is being swollen beyond all previous records.

It is inconceivable that these ideas occurred to Mr. Obama postelection. His agenda is of such scale and particularity that it is evidence of design and previous contemplation. He knew what he wished to do when he was campaigning, but he was not going to whisper the scale and range of his designs while the campaign was on. It would have scared off people.

But daring is Barack Obama's real middle name. When he borrowed the phrase "the audacity of hope" from his frightful mentor, most people fastened on the word "hope." They should have highlighted "audacity." With the smoothest and most finished ease of any candidate since John Kennedy, Mr. Obama glided through the primaries, and barely broke stride passing his hapless opponent, Senator John McCain, on the way to the White House.

He's flying high in dazzling hubris. The American economy is not yet fixed. It may get worse. And it is in this parlous and critical context that Mr. Obama has launched history-making expenditures and a reordering of American governance.

Daring? Daring - if you believe in it. Reckless - to the point of real danger if you do not.

This is the greatest trapeze act in the history of North American politics.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup .

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