In the winter of 1991 a colleague urged me to check out one of the emerging Democratic candidates. There was a gaggle of them, but one had begun to acquire a reputation for real talent. He had a fundraiser in DC and I tagged along for the ride. By the end of the day I was convinced that I had seen the next president. It took seeing Bill Clinton in the flesh to appreciate his full political skills.
I’m not going to jinx myself with predictions, but I couldn’t help but remember that day this past week when a colleague tipped me off to another fundraiser in Washington. This time it was for Barack Obama. The event was in a yuppie disco/ restaurant on the Potomac waterfront.
The crowd was strikingly diverse – mainly white but with a heavy black and Latino presence and skewed young. Obama took the stage and the energy in the room intensified. With no notes, this gawky intellectual rallied his base – part seminar, part sermon. He seemed tired, even a little irritable. You could sense him reach through exhaustion towards the rhetorical tropes that he has honed on the trail.
If I had to find a single word to describe his effect it would be easy: real. In a universe of political plastic, Obama has a rough, authentic edge. I thought, after a couple of decades in this jaded town, that I was beyond being inspired any more. But despite myself I felt the cynicism ebb.
It’s an odd feeling for a small government conservative like me. Obama, after all, is a big government liberal. Make no mistake about that.
He may, in fact, be the most effective liberal advocate I’ve heard in my lifetime. He isn’t Tony Blair or Clinton. He doesn’t have their defensive crouch learnt from a postReagan era of dominant conservatism. The overwhelming first impression is that this is a candidate for real change. He has what Ronald Reagan had in 1980 and Clinton had in 1992: the wind at his back. Sometimes elections really do come down to a simple choice: change or more of the same?
Look at the polls and forget ideology for a moment. What do Americans really want right now? Change. The New York Times poll released on Friday found that more Americans – a whopping 72% – now say that “generally things in the country are seriously off on the wrong track” than at any time since 1983.
Who best offers them a chance to turn the page cleanly on an era that most want to forget? It isn’t Hillary Clinton, God help us. John Edwards is so 2004. John McCain is a throwback. Mitt Romney makes Bill Clinton look like a rock of unbending principle. Rudy Giuliani does offer something new for Republicans – the abortion friendly, socially tolerant protector against terror. But no one captures the raw, pent-up desire for a new start more effectively than Obama.
I do not know if it is enough to propel him to the White House. Hillary Clinton has a strong lead in the Democratic primary polls, especially among women. But I do know that his candidacy has a clarity and logic to it that no other politician has.
Obama’s speech began and continued with domestic policy. War? What war? There was one tiny, fleeting mention of the terror threat. Yes, this is the Democratic base. Yes, the base’s fixation right now is ending the war in Iraq. Yes, you can make an argument that withdrawal there helps rather than hurts the terror war. But Obama didn’t make that argument.
The war on terror was all but absent from his remarks. He wanted universal healthcare, better education, greener energy and an end to what he decries as “cynicism”. His first mention of the Islamist threat was a call to end the war in Iraq. To listen to a stump speech five or so years after 9/11 and hear only a passing mention of it is disconcerting. Yet it is also bound up, surely, with his appeal. That appeal is partly to take Americans past the 9/11 moment and describe a journey forward that isn’t obviously into darkness.
Two further impressions. At a couple of points in his speech he used the phrase: “This is not who we are.” I was struck by the power of those words. He was reasserting that America is much more than George W Bush and Dick Cheney and Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and Katrina and fear and obstinacy and isolation. So he makes an argument for change in the language of restoration. The temperamental conservatives in America hear a form of patriotism and the ideological liberals hear a note of radicalism. It’s a powerful, unifying theme. He’d be smart to deepen and broaden it.
My favourite moment was a very simple one. He referred to the anniversary of the march on Selma, in 1965, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. He spoke of how he went to commemorate the anniversary and how he came back and someone said to him: “That was a great celebration of African-American history.” To which Obama said he replied: “No, no, no, no, no. That was not a great celebration of African-American history. That was a celebration of American history.”
To hear an American who is half Kansan and half Kenyan reassert the core decency of America, its enduring promise for people from all over the world, of all religions and ethnicities, should not be a moving moment. It should be a cliché. And yet something caught in my throat as I heard him reiterate it, as if he reminded me of something we have lost – but something that nonetheless endures.
Obama’s great appeal is that his identity and the content of his character rebrands America both to itself and to the world. To America he offers a promise of repairing the painful, toxic breach of the Iraq war and the Bush presidency. To the world he sends out a signal. Look at Americans again. They do not all look or sound like Cheney.
In many ways Obama is far more representative of contemporary multi-cultural, majority-minority America than Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or any of the crusty old white guys running for the Republican nomination. He is the son of immigrants, a racial mix, a political liberal who has honed his message the hard way – by arguing with conservatives, listening to their arguments, reasoning as well as organising his way to public office.
Am I swooning? Maybe. Are Ameri-cans? Not yet. But they are restless in a way that suggests we are not about to witness a political adjustment in Washington so much as a sea change. It may not happen. Wartime is a deeply unpredictable time. But there’s a reason for Obama’s wide appeal. A man may be meeting a moment.
The overwhelming question for me at this point in this historic campaign is a simple one: what will stop him? And how much artillery does Hillary Clinton have in her arsenal?