2/8/08 Fin. Times - FT.com
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 tonight 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 DC - are slated to go in his favour. 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 emphasise
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
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
mid-westerners 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