Saturday, February 09, 2008

Considering Obama

I don’t think there’s any question that the most interesting, and potentially most important, story of the 2008 presidential campaign has been the meteoric rise of Barack Obama. To date that story has been an almost entirely positive one, dominated by Obama’s unquestioned charisma and brilliant oratory. But the signs are already pointing to a shift in the story’s tone. Now that it’s entirely conceivable that an unstoppable phenomenon has taken root that will sweep Obama into the White House, the level of criticism pointed at him – some of it well-considered, some of it unfair and somewhat desperate – has sharpened. For Obama’s success to continue, he needs to begin responding to that criticism.

Even with his success thus far, my best guess is that Obama should be considered the underdog in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. The analogy isn’t perfect because a lot of things have changed in the past 40 years, but Obama is capturing the hearts of the electorate in much the same way that Bobby Kennedy did in the spring of 1968. But in much the same way that Hubert Humphrey had complete and total control of the party machinery that year, a stranglehold that likely would have propelled him to victory even had Kennedy not been assassinated, Hillary Clinton (and Bill; fair or not, he must be considered part of the equation) is unmatched in her skill at in-fighting, and it’s hard for me to imagine that a brokered convention would end in anything but a Clinton nomination.

An interesting discussion has begun, over what exactly it is that is so appealing about Obama. Two blogs that I link to on this site, both of which I respect and are very well written, are coming at the discussion from opposite sides.

On Conblogeration (in this post, and elsewhere) Pastor Jeff has sharply criticized what he sees as a divisive, cynical political strategy clothed in a message about hope and unity. His problems with Obama are probably best captured in this excerpt:

This is why the Clintons get so frustrated with Obama. If you try to hold him to any specifics or criticize what he stands for (besides "change"), you're accused of being angry and engaging in the same old divisive politics (which is not to say the Clintons aren't divisive). But it's a little like nailing Jell-O to a wall. It doesn't hurt that Obama is articulate, handsome, and loved by the media. Contrast his coverage to that of George Bush in 2000. Yes, Bush benefited from family connections, but he did have experience running a major business and the second-largest state. He had something more to offer than a smile and a promise.Wouldn't it be nice if politics were less ugly? Wouldn't it be wonderful to feel hopeful and optimistic? Sure; yet America in 2008 is hardly in bad shape. We're certainly better off than we were in 1936 or 1968 or 1980 or, I'd argue, even 2001. Even the political divide in America is relatively small in historical terms. Yet the media and special interests who hate Bush have been relentlessly downbeat for his entire Presidency, and have convinced people that America is facing some existential crisis. The economy is terrible! The war is lost! The Constitution is in shreds! They sky is falling! And so Obama offers himself as a vessel into which Americans can pour their hopes and dreams for a kinder, gentler nation (hmmm - that sounds familiar).I can understand his personal appeal; but what exactly is the attraction to him as President? He's a great motivational speaker. He'd be a good preacher. The only problem is that he's not applying for those jobs; he wants to be leader of the free world. And for that, you ought to offer more than a mantra of change.

On the other hand, Michael Reynolds at Sideways Mencken has made the case for why people are able to look past the lack of specificity in Obama’s campaign, and embrace the possibilities:

But setting that aside, let's talk about Obama "groupies" and what we hope for from Mr. Obama.What we hope for is an opportunity not to coalesce around a specific issue, but around the idea that we are Americans first. We hope for a chance to demonstrate that we are not merely dozens of interest groups, that we are not this color or that, this religion or that, this ideology or that.We hope, in short, for an end to the Atwater-Clinton-Rove style of politics. We don't see that as an end, but as a beginning. Do we know precisely where we hope to end up? No. We don't. But we know from where we've been forced to start for many, many decades now. We've been forced to start divided. We've been forced to start fractured, split, manipulated. And we're tired of it. We're sick to death of it.We don't know where the road will lead. But we know where we want to start. We want to start off Americans first. We want to be together before we are separated again by political differences. Is that really so hard to understand? Is it really so contemptible that we want, at least for a while, to stop being angry at each other, stop despising each other?Note that I say that, "We don't know where the road will lead." I don't say that we don't know where Mr. Obama will lead us. It's less about what Mr. Obama will do, than what he will allow us to do.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I voted for Obama in last week’s California Democratic Primary. Having said that, there are things in each of the above statements that I agree with. I would very much like for Obama to begin spelling out the particulars of his platform, particularly with respect to foreign policy and defense. At this point in my life I am probably what once would have been called a “Cold War Democrat” – I’m liberal on social issues, but frankly frightened by the naiveté and lack of realism in most of what the Democrats say about the war against terror and the war in Iraq.

But on the other hand, I would argue that there is something very real and very authentic in my desire for a change in the political atmosphere of this country – what Michael refers to as the “Atwater-Clinton-Rove” style of politics. And what troubles me most about what Pastor Jeff says is that in essence, he is saying that I’m dumb; that I’m too stupid to recognize the Obama campaign for what it is – in his view, a cyncial attempt to exploit my desires. To that I can only respond, I’m not dumb – setting modesty aside, I’m a pretty smart guy: one who is very good at his job, one who works well with other people, and one who is perfectly capable of making up his mind on his own. But though I agree with some of what he says, there’s no room for me in what Pastor Jeff has to say – for him, you’re either smart enough to get that Obama is a fraud, or there’s no hope for you and you’ve doomed the country to…well, whatever.

And when Pastor Jeff assigns the blame for the failure of the Bush Administration to the evil specter of “media and special interests,” as nearly every prominent conservative I read has done at one time or another, he loses me completely. Because over the past seven-plus years, there have been many times when I was rooting for President Bush to inspire this nation, to make the case for his foreign policy, to rally this country behind him. Time and again, he has failed. His failure to take advantage of the opportunities before him – and there were many – will likely be the lasting image of his presidency.

So, yes – I agree that the country is doing pretty well overall; that for all of our faults, we’ve got a lot to be proud of. But we can be better – and to date, it is only the campaign of Barack Obama that is built on that premise.

At some point, hopefully soon, Obama needs to begin filling in the blanks. I may not like everything I hear. But for now – and you call me stupid if you like – I’m with him.

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