The national melancholy and Obama’s missing spunk

Creative Commons/Courtesy

I went to dinner with a few friends the other night. It was two nights after the presidential debate in Denver – the debate where President Obama looked lethargic, uninspiring and uncharacteristically submissive.

I don’t know if it was because of the almost universally agreed-upon results of the debate, but the dinner conversation with my friends pretty quickly turned to politics. And the conversation was … depressing.

My companions that night were all UC Berkeley students. Much to my surprise, they revealed that even students at this politically engaged university are pessimistic, discouraged and sometimes even cynical.

At the dinner table, I heard about the hopelessness of global warming, the disaster of American foreign policy, the imminent collapse of Social Security and the utterly disheartening lack of ingenuity in American political circles. It’s just all too much to fix, they said. Berkeley students said the American way of life is unsustainable. They said it’s time to shut down and reboot.

The foreboding sense of doom at dinner that night is widespread in this country. There’s a growing sense of resignation, of broken hopes and growing fatigue. It’s in Berkeley – but it’s also in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C. Let’s call it the national melancholy.

The national melancholy says the problems Americans face today are too big and Americans too small. It says Americans are too partisan, too addicted to extravagance and too unwilling to change their ways.

The national melancholy says the U.S. is on the way out, and China is on the way in. It says the days of American exceptionalism are finished, and globalization — with its cold, forbidding face — is our fate.

The national melancholy says the U.S. is a sham of democracy, in dire need of a Sodom and Gomorrah-esque restart.

Of course it’s not as if this sense of resigned gloom isn’t based, to at least some degree, on reality. Problems in the U.S., in California and in Berkeley beg for often-elusive solutions. Things are not all fine and dandy.

But this American despondency is fundamentally unable — and even unwilling — to address the problems that permeate our present. It is rooted in fear and a feeling of vulnerability, and it leaves the nation psychologically paralyzed.

Sadly, President Obama did little to relieve our sense of helplessness and fear last Wednesday. He might have even deepened it. He made 2008 feel like a generation ago, like only four years past was already the nation’s rose-colored history. He showed no pluck, no punch and no confidence — he reminded everyone watching of the funk that continues to resist America’s best efforts to break free.

But Barack Obama is still the man he was four years ago. He is still inspiring. He is still optimistic, still fundamentally hopeful. Only the most soulless pragmatists have no hope, and Barack Obama is by no means soulless.

It’s time for the search to begin — the search for Barack Obama’s missing spirit. It’s time to forget our national melancholy and immerse ourselves in what was so refreshing to the nation in 2008: a sense of collectiveness, unity and willingness to sacrifice for the good of the nation. When Obama finds his mojo again, the essence of the glum will begin to fade away. And if Obama learns something new — if he adds a little experience to the political recipe he’s cooking up for the next four years — our melancholy doesn’t stand a chance.

Image source: Barack Obama via Creative Commons

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]