Getting to grips with Obama-mania

He has charisma, a good physique and ‘hip-mod grey suits’, and a policy programme that consists only of ‘hope’. Barack Obama takes the politics of personality to a new low.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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Barack Obama’s surprise win over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses created quite a buzz in the US: according to the pundits, it was an ‘earthquake’, a ‘smashing victory’; a result that has ‘shaken the political landscape’ (1).

It wasn’t so much the fact of the win by a comfortable margin (Clinton was rejected by more than 70 per cent of the voters), but how Obama seemed truly to engage with and enthuse voters, as evidenced by the huge numbers at his rallies (helped by Oprah Winfrey no doubt, but even the Oprah-less rallies were impressive) and a near-doubling of the turnout at the caucuses from previous years. The nation woke up the next morning to watch his victory speech, and many found it eloquent and moving. The prospect of the world’s superpower being led by the son of an African led many to believe that we were witnessing history at its inception.

At the time this article was published, it appeared that Obama was about to win again, this time in the New Hampshire primary, with more than one poll showing him with a double-digit lead. Of course, the polls may not hold up, but even if Clinton manages a win in New Hampshire, Obama has become a force to be reckoned with.

You don’t have to accept all of the talk about Obama being transformational and the second coming of JFK to recognise that there is palpable enthusiasm for Obama now. This type of genuine excitement about a presidential candidate hasn’t been seen in the US for a long time – perhaps since the early days of Bill Clinton’s candidacy in the early Nineties, or, as some would say, not since Kennedy. In today’s generally post-ideological, ‘third way’ political environment, this could be considered surprising: you might have expected more of a pragmatic managerial type to emerge, someone dull like Britain’s Gordon Brown.

Obama’s rise certainly cannot be explained by his policies – these are, for the most part, pedestrian and indistinguishable from his Democratic Party opponents’ stances. His popularity is certainly helped by the fact that he is an exceptional orator – his post-Iowa speech is definitely must-see viewing (2). However, his public performances are uneven; in particular, he often doesn’t do that well in the cut and thrust of debates, including the most recent one in New Hampshire last Saturday night.

To get closer to explaining the Obama phenomenon, we need to look beyond the man himself and consider the broader political context. In particular, there are two trends in politics today that are especially relevant: the desire to move beyond ‘partisanship’, and the demise of party-led politics and the concomitant rise of individual, freelancing candidates.

Politics in the US (and elsewhere in the West) has for some time now been empty of ideological conflict: the old left-right divide over principles of how to run society has disappeared, despite advocates on both sides attempting to prop it up through heated exchanges. Instead, ‘politics’ has become more of a badge of personal identity. This was especially true during the last presidential election, when blue-staters (Democrats) and red-staters (Republicans) defined themselves against one another in cultural terms. The fact that politics has become reduced to personal matters explains its intensity and vituperative nature, but also its hollowness.

Over time, the squabbling ‘partisans’ have boiled down to a hard core (3). The general public has become weary of the dumbed-down, Punch-and-Judy battlers on TV, like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman, Ann Coulter and Michael Moore, among others. And the anti-partisan mood is not just a view among the turned-off masses – it is shared by many elites, including Washington-based pundits. For instance, Los Angeles Times reporter Ronald Brownstein argues that the biggest problem facing American politics is the paralysis caused by excessive partisanship, a view held by many (4).

This desire to overcome partisanship is really apolitical in nature. It is an attack on the concept of having, and fighting for, political interests. And this desire is what Obama keys into.

Rather than detail programmatic changes (the ‘what’), Obama emphasises modes of operating (the ‘how’). He talks about ‘working together’ and overcoming partisan gridlocks – it’s not so much political ends, but means. He has from the start of his campaigned stressed the importance of a ‘respectful tone’ (5). He is anti-ideological and, in his implicit endorsement of economic and social fundamentals, essentially conservative – which explains why he is able to gain noticeable support from Republicans and independents, as well as Democrats.

As Andrew Sullivan perceptively pointed out in his profile of Obama before the Iowa result, Obama embodies the sentiment to escape the past and to transcend the culture wars (6). This has very little to do with Obama’s specific policies, but rather who he ‘is’. Supporters seem to prefer to live in the realm of Obama’s lofty rhetoric, rather than examine his views. He is more of a blank slate on to which people project their desires. When the spotlight occasionally falls on his specific ideas, he runs into trouble, such as his derided idea of invading Pakistan to find Osama bin Laden.

This emphasis on who Obama ‘is’ may be the ultimate victory of identity politics – not in the sense of identity politics as bickering among tribes (indeed, it is notable that Obama rarely refers to his race and has clearly separated himself from black politicos), but identity as the defining feature of political advantage. In this regard, it was noteworthy that, after gaining public attention from a keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Party National Convention, Obama decided to enter national politics by first describing his personal history in a memoir before he had achieved much of anything in politics (7).

It is the ephemeral nature of Obama’s candidacy and his support that has made it so hard for Hillary Clinton to oppose him. She criticises his lack of experience, but his supposedly unsullied past is what many find appealing. Obama seems to rise above it all, he’s the untouchable ‘Saint Barack’. Commentators are on the lookout for any sign of nasty tricks or slander from the Clinton campaign. The slightest misstep – such as when Clinton’s advisers suggested that Obama’s over-ambition was evidenced by a kindergarten essay – is seized upon and backfires on her. (Obama finds it easy to dismiss such attempts with humour; landing in New Hampshire, he quipped: ‘It’s just like I imagined it when I was talking to my kindergarten teacher.’)

The demise of the Democratic Party apparatus is another important contributing factor. This is a long-term trend, but President Bill Clinton took a big step towards deconstructing it. Many have highlighted how, via being at the helm of the Democratic Leadership Council, President Clinton took the party in a centrist direction, ‘triangulating’ and seemingly co-opting Republican positions. But fewer recognise how this move dismantled traditional intermediaries within the party, and further distanced the party leadership from any connection with its base.

Following the end of President Clinton’s two terms in office, and the disarray following Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 election, the Clintons were able to take control of what remained of the party structure. They set out on a plan of putting Hillary in a position to be the party’s candidate – a project initiated when she was handpicked in 2000 to run for a shoo-in Senate seat in New York, a state she had no prior connection with (unlike in the UK, it is rare for US candidates to be placed in geographical constituencies where they have no established foothold).

Hillary’s selection by what remained of the party’s bureaucracy appeared to be working – she definitely had a high public recognition factor and popularity among Democrats, and she steadily built up a track record in Congress. Prior to Iowa, all the pundits talked about what a ‘strong’ candidate she was. But in reality, she has always been a uncertain foundation on which to build Democrat hopes. People can easily see through her claims to ’35 years of experience’ – they know that most of these were spent as a private-sector lawyer and presidential spouse. (As Obama put it, she ‘wasn’t exactly treasury secretary’ in the Clinton administration.) And, in today’s anti-partisan climate, she has the particular problem of appearing polarising – indeed, she is a political Rorschach test, generating strong feelings of being both hated and loved. And opinions don’t fall neatly along party lines: a ferocious anti-Hillary sentiment is expressed by both conservatives (who go on about her radical Sixties past) and liberals (who won’t forgive her for voting for the Iraq war). By historical standards, Hillary – and all of the other candidates – are weak, and it’s only in this general context that a political neophyte like Obama can stand out.

There is a real irony here in how the political world Bill Clinton helped to create is coming back to bite his wife’s campaign. Bill’s poll-based views, his ‘parsing’ of the truth, contributed to greater cynicism about politicians. Hillary’s candidacy harks back to those days – a bridge back to the twentieth century, to subvert her husband’s catchphrase. Obama picks up and uses this. As his campaign director, David Axelrod, says, the public ‘don’t want calculation and parsing’ (8).

Obama is now out-Clintoning (Bill) Clinton, emphasising the same themes of ‘hope’ and ‘uniting America’ that Clinton put forward in 1992. The difference is that this time Obama’s is even more devoid of content. Indeed, it is remarkable, and a testament to the low expectations of today, that an essentially mundane message around ‘working together’ in Washington can be seen as the successor to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Bill Clinton’s rise also signified the elevation of individual personality above the party and its base. This has continued, to Hillary’s detriment. Bill’s therapeutic, ‘I feel your pain’ approach to connecting with the public now leads to viewing Hillary as ‘cold and remote’. If the contest is reduced to one of personality, Obama does win hands-down over the wooden Hillary. As Maureen Dowd put it, voters are dreaming that Obama will be a ‘cool, smart, elegant, reasonable, literary, witty, decent, West Wing sort of president’ (9). All of the emphasis on Obama’s charisma, his physique, ‘hip-mod grey suits’, takes the discussion of politicians as individual personalities to an all-time low.

It would be wise to be cautious about all of the current ‘Obama-mania’. The media has just about awarded Obama the nomination, seeing him as invincible (10). But this is the same media that a few weeks ago dismissed Obama as too lightweight. Even if Hillary loses in New Hampshire, she has the resources to continue to fight on.

All of the candidates’ lack of foundation in a classic base of support, via a true political party, gives the race the possibility of real instability. In some regards, Obama has benefited from the focus on one-time frontrunner Hillary. You can easily imagine that, once attention really turns to Obama, his lack of substance and his weak debating style could give way to disappointment and criticism. But the unique and paradoxical thing about Obama is that he has somehow turned apoliticism into a rallying cry that resonates with the public, and this may, in defiance of historical precedence, give him staying power.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

John Browne looked at why an outsider like Mike Huckabee could win the Republican race in Iowa. Mick Hume showed how America’s mid-terms revealed a political class in crisis. Daniel Ben-Ami believed cynicism has replaced genuine political debate. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.

(1) The Two Earthquakes, New York Times, 4 January 2008; Obama in Perspective, San Diego Union-Tribune, 6 January 2008; Who Can Stop Obama?, Newsweek, 3 January 2008

(2) View the speech

(3) The Closing of the American Mind, Newsweek, 22 December 2007

(4) The Second Civil War, Ronald Brownstein, Penguin, 2007

(5) Inside Obama’s Dream Machine, Newsweek, 5 January 2008

(6) Goodbye to All That, The Atlantic, December 2007

(7) Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama, Canongate Books, 2007

(8) Quoted in The Relaunch, The New Yorker, 26 November 2007

(9) Voting for a Smile, New York Times, 6 January 2008

(10) Who Can Stop Obama?, Newsweek, 3 January 2008. For a counter-view, see Obama in Perspective, San Diego Union-Tribune, 6 January 2008

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Topics USA


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