U.S. elections 2008
THE DYNAMISM AND THE DANGER OF OBAMA
By Edward Luce
Financial Times (London)
February 8, 2008
Some of Hillary Clinton’s more optimistic supporters believe that Barack Obama’s wave crested on Tuesday when they drew even honours in the mega-primary. But “Obamamania” could well resume as early as Saturday night when the results of the next three contests are declared (in Nebraska, Washington State and Louisiana).
Likewise at least two of the three “Potomac primaries” next Tuesday -- Maryland and Washington D.C. -- are slated to go in his favor. Not to mention the money race, in which Mr. Obama’s prowess at internet-based fundraising is putting Hillary Clinton -- and previous records -- increasingly into the shade. In January alone Mr. Obama raised $32m, more than double the amount raised by Mrs. Clinton. His advisers suggest that he is on track to match that fundraising record again this month.
What is driving Obamamania? Many answers are offered. Some emphasize Mr. Obama’s electrifying oratory. Others point to the symbolic antidote that an Obama presidency would offer a cynical world after eight years of President George W. Bush. Still others argue that a “post-racial” President Obama would draw the remaining poison from America’s fraught racial history.
There is truth in all of these. It is also true -- as Senator Edward Kennedy said when he bestowed the aura of Camelot on Mr. Obama in his endorsement last month -- that the freshman senator from Illinois is the candidate of tomorrow, of the young, and of the previously apathetic. Mr. Obama is like a giant political magnet who attracts new voters to the polls in droves.
But to argue, as Mr. Obama does, that he offers something completely new may be to overstate his case a little. Each of his three central messages is as old as the Republic -- the promise of bipartisanship (“to put an end to the bickering and the partisan ways of Washington”), an ethical foreign policy (“to restore America’s moral place in the world”) and delivering change through unity (“to stand up and say we are one nation; we are one people; and our time for change has come”).
Each of these themes also share two traits. First they are drawn from the school of “American exceptionalism” -- the belief that America offers a uniquely moral beacon to the world. And second, they are virtually impossible to accomplish.
There is nothing inherently accident-prone about American exceptionalism -- for every Iraq war there is a Marshall Plan. And there is nothing wrong with promising things you cannot fully deliver. It is better to get some of the way there than never to try at all.
But it may also be necessary to manage expectations a little if your supporters are as fired up as those of Mr. Obama. At the moment, Mr. Obama is doing the opposite. While often beautifully pitched, his words often veer close to the prophetic. Take Mr. Obama’s speech last Tuesday night to supporters in Chicago.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for,” he said in a paraphrase of Oprah Winfrey’s disclosure that Mr. Obama was “the one, the one I have been waiting for.”
Mr. Obama continued: “We know that what began as a whisper has now swelled to a chorus that cannot be ignored, that will not be deterred, that will ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest.”
Or take Mr. Obama’s victory speech after the caucuses in Iowa that kicked off the primary season: “On this January night -- at this defining moment in history -- you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do. In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and big cities, you came together to say that we are one nation, we are one people and change is coming to America.”
It was a poetic speech that one commentator memorably described as a “goose-bump” moment. But if getting the votes of 95,000 Midwesterners is a defining moment in history, in what terms would Mr. Obama describe his nomination?
As for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s campaign is on solid ground when it alleges that she and her husband have blatantly distorted his record. For example, the Clintons described Mr. Obama’s claim to have consistently opposed the Iraq war as a “fairy tale.” And the Clinton campaign twisted Mr. Obama’s commonplace observation that Ronald Reagan had generated new ideas to make it appear that he was a devotee of Reaganomics.
Such tactics backfired not because they were unfair, which they were, but because they were unsubtle. Mr. Obama, too, has indulged in negative politics but without obviously appearing to do so. To succeed, a moral campaign must depict the opposition as immoral. When Mr. Obama said that Iowa’s voters chose “hope over fear,” “unity over division,” and the “future over the past," everyone knew which nouns belonged to Mrs. Clinton.
None of which is to predict that Mr. Obama will end up with the Democratic nomination. It could go either way. Nor that he would make a worse president than Mrs. Clinton -- or indeed the likely Republican nominee, John McCain, who, at 72, would fit neatly into “the past” were Mr. Obama and he to square off in a general election.
But it is safe to say that an Obama presidency would start off with much higher expectations. There would be magic in that. But also danger.
--The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief.