Simon Barber
Simon Barber

A man of substance

If Barack Obama wins Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary — and after his decisive showing in the Iowa caucuses last week, his chances look very strong — it will be time to start thinking seriously about President Obama. The prospect appeals.

Not to Bill Clinton, of course. He has been telling reporters Obama is unelectable and that if the media continues swooning for Obama while socking it to Hillary, the result will be another Republican in the White House. Bill may be one of the smartest politicians of his generation, but in sinking to this level of spin he appears to have inhaled something.

Until quite recently, I’ve been cautious about Obama, wondering, in Dorothy Parker’s phrase, whether there was any there there. Sure, he can give a great speech, but does he have substance? Hillary has been counting on that question to deal with the Obama challenge. Trouble, for her at any rate, is that Obama has been answering it and his answers are convincing.

Have a gander at this speech which he gave in Iowa some weeks back. His campaign was stalled at the time. If he reaches the White House, this may well be remembered as the moment his candidacy caught fire. What you’ll see is not play acting or the accomplished delivery of lines crafted by a clever speechwriter. It’s the kind of oratory that makes things happen.

Every candidate, Democrat and Republican, is posing as an agent of change. Change, say the pollsters, is what the electorate craves. Hillary contends that she has the experience to implement change. She reels off laundry lists of “accomplishments” from her service in the Senate and as First Lady to prove it.
But her track record is a double edged sword. Does four or eight more years of a Clinton in the White House really represent change? What laundry list ever stirred a nation’s soul?

Americans this year want change the way they wanted change when they elected Ronald Reagan. In 1980 they had been through a rotten decade.

Humiliation abroad, first in Vietnam then at the hands of the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran; stagflation and petrol queues at home. The past eight years have been no joy ride either. 9/11. The wrong-headed and disastrous intervention in Iraq. The decline of American prestige. The collapse of the dollar. And now imminent recession.

Reagan the outsider promised morning in America and won in a landslide. Obama likewise offers a message of hope: Abroad, a restoration of America’s standing in the world and an end to the shame of torture and Guantánamo Bay; at home, an end to ideological brainlock on issues like affordable healthcare. Moreover, Obama not only offers hope, he embodies it. A solid majority of Americans, I think, would take great satisfaction in electing a black president. They would feel they were telling the world an important story about themselves, their country and its values. It would be a matter of national redemption and with redemption, pride.

For a good primer on what makes Obama tick, this New Yorker profile is worth a read. Entitled “The Conciliator”, it portrays a listener who is serious about practical solutions, believes in putting himself into the shoes of his antagonists, is distrustful of -isms, has both the self-confidence and humility to transcend partisanship, and “whose natural instinct”, as one friend put it, “is not dividing the baby in half but looking for areas of convergence”.

As a guide to an Obama administration’s foreign policy, this quote from the New Yorker article is useful. Discussing the invasion of Iraq, he said:

“There was a dangerous innocence to thinking that we would be greeted as liberators, or that with a little bit of economic assistance and democratic training you’d have a Jeffersonian democracy blooming in the desert … There is a running thread in American history of idealism that can express itself powerfully and appropriately, as it did after World War II with the creation of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, when we recognized that our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others. But the same idealism can express itself in a sense that we can remake the world any way we want by flipping a switch, because we’re technologically superior or we’re wealthier or we’re morally superior. And when our idealism spills into that kind of naïveté and an unwillingness to acknowledge history and the weight of other cultures, then we get ourselves into trouble, as we did in Vietnam.”

As for the meme that Obama is all talk and no action, this oped from last Friday’s Washington Post provides a interesting corrective.

  • alan

    good article simon. for those interested in the Iowa speech, the video is embedded over here:

  • Victor

    Without raising the racial antennas in our South African society. I do genuinely wonder wether America is ready for a Black president. Whilst the message sent to the world will be strong, I doubt very much that “Powers” that be, will allow this to happen. Its an even trickier call for America being ready for a female president. I just think the Democrats have a platform to kick out the Republicans but with their candidates, neither Obama nor Clinton can do it. So we have the evangelical right influencing things once more and a Replican in power!

    Having said the above : I do feel a twinge of excitement on the prospect of Obama being eventually elected President, but dare not hope!

  • MidaFo

    Obama said ” The fact of the matter is that Brazilian ethanol is substantially cheaper than U.S. ethanol. Now, George Bush wanted to go ahead and let that come in, and myself and Durbin”—Richard Durbin, Illinois’s senior senator—“said no, we would continue to support the existing tariff so that we can have the development of a homegrown ethanol market. I want to make sure that whatever is being done is utilizing the fact that we’ve got some of the richest soil on earth and the best farmers on earth.”(New Yorker Profile)

    Globalisation or Americanisation?

    In the New Yorker article, although the degree to which the us-meaning-me of Obama is very effectively presented to give the impression of messianic significance, we must not forget that this is typical of the vacuous bunch that came before. List the names of those failures see if you can avoid making the connection and wincing at it.
    Perhaps we all have to ask more fundamental questions. Perhaps we have to question the movie star approach that is carefully structured into this article and that is now so depressingly familiar with regard to a growing list of American Presidents following one after another.
    Then we may see that this just seems to be more of the same that got us all to where we are now: living in a world with a bloated, unbalanced, buccaneer state using blatant force to make us all listen and agree to give them our future while they merrily ruin the climate of the world and comprehensively blame China for it. And this is not a movie!
    If you have any doubts just look at the size of America’s armed forces. Why spend that amazing amount on that if you do not intend to seek ways of using it? This alone should tell us we are dealing with a state culture dedicatedly into the Third World War right now and for some time in the past. That kind of army is not power, it is force. War is not power, it is force whatever the propagandist says and it is not only Bush who portentously says “War is Peace”, the American nation believes it.
    Closely allied to force is the use of propaganda. The Americans operate internationally within the ambit of something they call Public Diplomacy, which is simply and blatantly a term to hide their propagandist intent; a bigger and more blatant lie has never been made. And that is what this article seems to be; purely propagandist.
    In case we forget, propaganda is a war-time tactic consisting of telling others what to believe to the benefit of the originator. It is not diplomacy because diplomacy is mutual, which entails listening, and when does America listen to anyone?

    We cannot trust the Great American Hero; their Messiah complex. It is unfair on us and unfair on America. Just as it did to Princess Diana, such silly adulation and trust contrives to destroy a great potential.
    Simon your writing and your photo both make it seem as if you would also like to be a movie star. I give no truck to those things.

  • Simon Barber

    Many thanks, Alan, for posting a link to Obama’s Iowa victory speech. I was referring to a different speech and have linked it in the post itself. But the victory speech was pretty good too, certainly in contrast the Hillary’s appearance that night. She came before the cameras with Bill, Madeleine Albright and others from Bill’s administration as backdrop. Made her newly discovered enthusiasm for change ring rather hollow. Note how Obama didn’t have people at his shoulder when he spoke and didn’t use a podium so that all the attention was on him and his message. During Hillary’s remarks, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the guy chewing gum in her right ear.

  • Charles

    Impressive article…even better seeing the YouTube video clip. I wonder when South African presidents and politicians will ever get such charisma and confidence when they deliver their speeches.

  • Solly Moeng

    I also think Simon’s article is both quite well balanced (referes to his own initial doubts about Obama) and well written (with good references). I have been following the Obama phenomenon for months now and am increasingly convinced that this is the man that America needs for President at this point in its history. America is not only in need of change, it is also in need of healing, and methinks Barack Obama is the man to bring some fresh air for a semblance of both (politics being politics at the end of the day!). What’s this rubbish about America not being ready for a “Black President”? Who determines when it will be and what would be the signs? Here is a man with the right attitude, charisma, and intelligence, a man with a good sense of perspective with regard to America’s supposed “place in the world” and we continue arguing about the readiness of his country for a President of his pigmentation? Oh pleeeze!!

  • james N.Y.

    Druggie [dealing] in his youth. Attended Madrassa, compared to Romney In the rarefied field of Management consultants ”a financial genius” Osama, Obama is a mental midget. Unelectable.

  • Merlin

    Great article, Simon.
    I’ve become increasingly excited about Obama’s likewise increasing prospects of winning the presidency. It will, no doubt, see the re-birth of common sense and plain logic in American foreign policy as opposed to the willy-nilly paranoia that has been fanning the flames of terrorism. Obama is a disarming presence who dares to speak of political empathy, and a duty to address global poverty without the patronising attitude of merely being charitable. This is the kind of America that the world wants to see… a people who admit that they are also suffering and that they are willing to listen. Obama is the man with the kind of humility to show this face of America to the world, and set landmarks for other world leaders to follow.

  • Solly Moeng

    I couldn’t agree more! We should all get even more afraid when someone like James in New York gets paranoid and negative at a simple similarity in the names “Osama” and “Obama”. What if Mr. Barack’s name were also “Osama”? would that make him an enemy of the US?

  • poetik

    Obama,depsite the limits put on a US Presidency by the various powerful agendas outside of the White House, still remains to me, the best choice America could make. Hillary is a much more arrogant, and even self-centred Clinton. Given that if i were American i would vote Obama over Bill Clinton simply because of the fact that his background allows him a more empathic approach to those who are minority in the politically and economically, you should know where i put Hillary. Bill was sympathetic, Obama is inherently empathic. Hillary is basically just ambitious and opportunistic.

    also, it would be nice for a change to see a black person of African origin becoming the most powerful person in the world. that should change perspective on many young black African people who might be struggling with a generally internationally orientated disparaging and condescending view that people like them are not fit to hold certain positions.
    it would serve the same purpose boxers like Joe Luios, footballers like Pele and George Weah served for the self-confidence of people of African origin.