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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.