2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Tom Baldwin
3/4/08 Times (U.K.) 6

He is promising hope and a new approach to government, but the Democrat front runner maystruggleto meet some great expectations

The scene has become familiar across America in recent weeks: long queues of people snaking around a sports hall and bubbling with excitement at the prospect of listening to Barack Obama.

They comprise people of all ages, races and social class - gathering under the Democratic presidential challenger's slogan of "change we can believe in". But what, exactly, is this change in which they all believe?

In dozens of interviews at a rally in Westerville, Ohio, it is apparent that many supporters have burgeoning - and contradictory - expectations of what "President Obama" would do.

Phil Sowell says: "He will bring peace to the Middle East and anywhere in the world where there is tragedy." Larry Milton, 56, thinks "he will be more worried about what happens here and less worried about other countries".

Carrie Thompson hopes he will "address global poverty and other issues which Republicans keep overlooking", but Ron Gaynor, 52, a lifelong Republican, says: "He will bring the power of veto and say 'no' to a lot of this government spending - we seem to give money to people all around the globe."

Sarah Jaffy, 41, says: "I really like his healthcare plan. And there's another policy - it's my favourite - ooh, I can't remember (it) right now." Erin Henderson, 18, has gone with a gaggle of friends to see Mr Obama and she declares: "We're all really excited about him and we heard he might make it easier to get into college."

Today these voters could decisively tip the balance of the Democratic presidential race Mr Obama's way. If Hillary Clinton loses Ohio and Texas, most observers - including her husband, Bill - say her candidacy will fail.

She has become increasingly frustrated at seeing her poll leads evaporate as Mr Obama's bandwagon gathers speed, even as she rails against his soaring oratory and adulatory rallies. "I could stand up here and say 'let's just get everybody together, let's get unified'," she said recently. "The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect."

But Mr Obama's coalition of voters suggests his message is succeeding in reaching out, not only across the racial divisions of America, but also over the partisan political landscape of the Clinton-Bush era.

As such, he resembles another charismatic youthful politician who offered hope, change and a new approach to government: Tony Blair in Britain 11 years ago. It is a comparison not lost on Mr Obama's admirers, who answer charges that support for him is a passing fad by pointing out that the former Prime Minister won successive landslide election victories before his appeal began to fade.

Whereas there is a cynicism that often permeates British politics, the American psyche is more open to candidates offering "new leadership" that can wipe clean the sins of previous administrations.

However, Mr Blair perhaps had better grounds to the claim that he stood for post-partisan politics, having defeated the old left of the Labour Party by dumping Clause IV and its promise of mass nationalisation and steering the party towards the "radical centre" over the course of three years in opposition. Mr Obama, by contrast, is winning support from many independent and Republican voters, despite having, according to a study by the conservative National Journal, the most liberal voting record of any US senator.

Mrs Clinton cited a passage last week from Mr Obama's book, published two years ago, called The Audacity of Hope, "where he said that he is a blank screen and people of widely different views project what they want to hear".

But the full quote is more interesting. Mr Obama first summarised his orthodox opinions as a Democrat who views America through the lens of a black man, before adding: "That is not all I am. I also think my party can be smug, detached and dogmatic." He then set out views on the free market, patriotism, spirituality, and a politics not based solely on "victimhood" which will "get me into trouble".

Although admitting that he was new enough to be a blank screen on which "people of vastly different political stripes project their own views", Mr Obama added: "I am bound to disappoint some, if not all of them."

At his Westerville rally in Ohio, Eric Whitaker, a member of Mr Obama's coterie of travelling friends and ad hoc advisers, discussed the comparison with Mr Blair. "I guess the big challenge of leadership is disappointing your supporters at a rate they can deal with," he says. On the stage, Senator Jay Rockefeller - a national security expert - explains why Mr Obama is qualified to be commander-in-chief. "It's just how you feel about it," he says, "I trust him."

Sitting in the audience, Alex Dukeman, 17, says she expects Mr Obama to introduce universal healthcare. But isn't his plan voluntary while Mrs Clinton promises a compulsory mandate? "I just think he is a likeable guy and he inspires people," she replies. Zach Adriaenssens, 20, says Mr Obama is a "unifier" who can negotiate with Republicans "and will sort healthcare".

Donny Murray, 21, says Mr Obama "has definitely got a better plan" for tackling global warming. How so? "I'm not sure about the specifics, I just think he'll get more people involved." Freda Graan, 27, a Spanish teacher at Ohio State university, explains: "If you listen to Hillary, she says 'I will do this'. Obama says 'we will do this'. People are excited to be involved. It's my responsibility as a voter not to be cynical." Yusuf Abdi, 55, says: "He will change everything - healthcare, no war, education. He can do anything." Karen Clark, a teacher, 58, says she has switched her support from Clinton because "I want to be on the winning side".

When Mr Obama arrives on the platform, the crowd erupts with many standing up and holding cameras above their heads to capture the moment - giving the appearance of a massed double-armed salute. As ever, a woman screams: "We love you Obama!" He replies, as usual, "I, uh, love you back." He delivers a slightly low-key performance, without some of his higher flights of rhetoric. It is a speech heavy with specifics on policy, possibly a sign of how sensitive he remains to Mrs Clinton's recent criticism that he is "policy lite".

But his proposals are not the "tough choices" type that might make him new enemies. Mr Obama talks of a "middle-class tax cut" which will "make life more affordable for 95 per cent of Americans", help for businesses facing bankruptcy and investment in new jobs for economically squeezed Ohio. On healthcare, he explains how negotiations with the industry will be televised "so American people can see what's going on".

Outside the hall is Robin Lease, 52, a Lycra-clad teacher who has just jogged two miles from Mrs Clinton's rally across town. "I wanted to see them both speak," she says. "I would tend to vote for Obama - I think he would be more liberal on social programmes," she says. "But then again, I'm a Republican. I know that sounds confusing."

WHAT HAPPENS IF?

Clinton wins both

It dramatically reshapes the race and bolsters her argument that she wins the big, demographically diverse states. She presses on to Pennsylvania on April 22

Clinton loses both

She will come under enormous pressure from the Democratic Party establishment to bow out and clear the way for Obama

There's a split decision

Clinton will again come under pressure to quit but her instinct will be to stay in the race, arguing that Obama is finally being subjected to proper scrutiny

 
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