Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Does Obama "Matter"?

Hhhhhmmmmmmm... There seems to be some new instability in the Democratic race for the presidency, a shift in energy. Recent polling data indicates there might be some movement in the numbers, with Hillary losing 3-5% over the last week or so. Is this a blip or a trend? Time will tell. But, clearly Obama has been energized and emboldened a bit recently and Edwards continues to level the hardest-hitting criticisms against Clinton. The perception has sunk in that Hillary stumbled in the last debate, denting the air of inevitability that had followed her campaign. And when they tried to regain their footing this past week, the attempt seemed awkward and defensive. Moreover, Bill has been taking an increasingly public role in articulating Hillary's vision and defending her against mounting criticism and I'm not sure this is a winning strategy in the end. With a little blood in the water, a number of new groups have cropped up from the liberal-left side of the political spectrum challenging Hillary's campaign. One such group, Democratic Courage, argues that "Hillary Clinton has repeatedly given in too easily to pressure - and too often decides her policies not on the basis of what's right, but on the basis of what polls and focus groups tell her. As history shows, that's a dangerous road for Democrats and for the country. We believe there are other candidates who would be stronger leaders and have a much better chance of winning in 2008."

But this "disturbance in the force" that is the Clinton Campaign has me thinking again about what exactly is at the heart of Obama's appeal, his rock-star persona. Is there any there there? Of course, Obama has said ad nauseum that he is the candidate of "change," the one to "turn the page." He is relatively young, clearly smart and charismatic, multi-racial, internationally experienced, hip and good-looking. He has painted himself as the first "post-civil rights" black presidential candidate and has stressed unity and common purpose. Admittedly, one thing that has worked to Obama's advantage in the early phases of the campaign has been the fact that he was relatively unknown and thus people have been able to pour into him whatever political hopes and aspirations they possess. The idea of Obama is certainly great...

And still, I wonder - and am asking - what is it about Obama? Does Obama matter and if so, how and why exactly? For many, he remains elusive. How do we find out?

Maybe his recent speeches contain some clues...
"A Challenge for Our Times"
"A Change We Can Believe In"
"Reclaiming the American Dream"

Or, maybe we can learn something about him by looking at the legislation on Iran he recently introduced in Congress.

Or, perhaps his surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live is revealing?

Or, geez, it seems like writers for every major magazine have an opinion about why Obama might matter. Here's what a few of them have to say:

James Traub, "Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny" (New York Times Magazine)
Obama’s supporters believe that his life story and the angle of vision it affords him hold out the possibility of curing the harm they would say we have done to ourselves through our indifference to the views of others and through the insularity of a president who seems so incurious about the world. There is thus an emblematic force to Obama’s candidacy.

Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator," (The New Yorker)
Obama’s detachment, his calm, in small venues, is less professorial than medical—like that of a doctor who, by listening to a patient’s story without emotional reaction, reassures the patient that the symptoms are familiar to him. It is also doctorly in the sense that Obama thinks about the body politic as a whole thing. If you are presenting a problem as something that they have perpetrated on us, then whipping up outrage is natural enough; but if you take unity seriously, as Obama does, then outrage does not make sense, any more than it would make sense for a doctor to express outrage that a patient’s kidney is causing pain in his back. There is also, of course, a racial aspect to this. “If you’re a black male, you don’t have to try hard to impress people with your aggression,” Haywood says. “There was a period when black politicians started to be successful, and it was understood that if you wanted to be mainstream you’d better have gray hair. Doug Wilder was an example. David Dinkins. Mayor Bradley in L.A. To be popular with the broader white electorate, you’d better look safe, you’d better not look angry. Now, I don’t think Barack made a conscious decision to come across this way, but it is a happy accident. Some people may have seen his speech at the Democratic Convention, or heard that he rocked the house, and they may be disappointed, but the mainstream is not ready for a fire-breathing black man.” (It seems likely that, consciously or not, Obama has learned from these examples, and knows that the election of a President Obama wouldn’t mean a revolution in race relations, any more than women prime ministers were a sign of flourishing feminism in South Asia. Bigotry has always made exceptions.)

Matthew Rothschild, "Obama's Appeal" (The Progressive)
Unlike any other candidate in the race, Obama electrifies young people, and his audiences are diverse... His last words were: "Let’s go change the world."

Andrew Sullivan, "Goodbye to All That" (The Atlantic Monthly)
Strictly speaking, Obama is at the tail end of the Boomer generation. But he is not of it.

“Partly because my mother, you know, was smack-dab in the middle of the Baby Boom generation,” he told me. “She was only 18 when she had me. So when I think of Baby Boomers, I think of my mother’s generation. And you know, I was too young for the formative period of the ’60s—civil rights, sexual revolution, Vietnam War. Those all sort of passed me by.”

Obama’s mother was, in fact, born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton. He did not politically come of age during the Vietnam era, and he is simply less afraid of the right wing than Clinton is, because he has emerged on the national stage during a period of conservative decadence and decline. And so, for example, he felt much freer than Clinton to say he was prepared to meet and hold talks with hostile world leaders in his first year in office. He has proposed sweeping middle-class tax cuts and opposed drastic reforms of Social Security, without being tarred as a fiscally reckless liberal. (Of course, such accusations are hard to make after the fiscal performance of today’s “conservatives.”) Even his more conservative positions—like his openness to bombing Pakistan, or his support for merit pay for public-school teachers—do not appear to emerge from a desire or need to credentialize himself with the right. He is among the first Democrats in a generation not to be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe, which also gives them more freedom to move pragmatically to the right, if necessary. He does not smell, as Clinton does, of political fear.

TIME magazine, "Obama's Red State Appeal"
Political organizing for Democrats in red states like Nebraska can often feel a bit like leading AA meetings. But that hasn't deterred more than 300 Nebraskans from forming a dozen groups for Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and they aren't the only ones. On Monday, the Obama campaign announced that over 300 Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans had decided to cross party lines to support Obama. At Obama events in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia and Georgia, a good 20% of audiences routinely raise their hands when emcees ask for Republicans in the crowd. A "Republicans for Obama" website has 11 state chapters with 146 members. An August University of Iowa even found Obama running third in the state among Republican candidates, behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani but ahead of both Fred Thompson and John McCain. And a national Gallup poll this month also found that nearly as many Republicans like Obama — 39% — than the 43% that dislike him, compared with the 78% of Republicans who held an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton.

68 New Hampshire Republicans Back Obama

268 Iowa Republicans Back Obama

So, any thoughts out there about whether or not Obama matters?

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