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
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
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
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