Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Obama Phenomenon

Watching last week's Iowa caucuses and anticipating today's New Hampshire primaries, many of us who follow the Democratic Party are feeling a scary kind of déjà vu, the sense that we may be seeing the emergence of something great, and a palpable fear that we will lose it all. Naturally, I'm speaking of the rapid rise of Barack Obama from near obscurity as an Illinois state senator through his inspirational keynote address at the 2004 convention, to his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the 2008 presidential race. At a time when Republicans seem incapable of regrouping after the disaster of the Bush presidency I can imagine what his advisors told him: There will never be a chance like this again. Aim for daylight and run like hell. And, wow, is this guy running.

He started off slowly, seemingly unsure of himself. Detesting the stilted debate formats that forced him to strip down his soaring oratory into brief sound bites, Obama hardly cut an impressive figure against the likes of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. His policies seemed ill-formed, his responses to hypothetical foreign policy challenges, Pollyannaish. But no one could question his intellect and his ability to learn from his mistakes.

To me, the turning point began when Obama accepted that many Democrats (and Independents, such as myself) wanted him to channel those great leaders of the Left that were taken in the sixties, most notably Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Then he began to speak of the "fierce urgency of now," firing up his supporters with the promise of hope, the assurance that real change was on the way.

It has always been thus, at least in my memory: the audacity of hope versus the campaign of experience (and its attendant evocation of fear). I remember debating at Berry College for Bill Clinton, representing the Democratic side against a fairly proficient array of fellow students who spoke for the Republican side. Doing two live debates, along with one on television, I spoke as a student inspired by Bill Clinton and his promise that things could get better: health care would be universal, educational opportunities would be expanded, and foreign policy would be built on principle over expediency.

I remember the personal pride I felt when a friend, one of the most hardcore Republican students I knew, joined our celebration on election night, good-naturedly admitting that our side had won. I had such hope in those days. But when the Clinton administration sullied itself with blunders both bloody and vile, I found it harder and harder to hold my head high as a Democrat. Only the fact that I could not seriously support anyone on the other side kept me in the party. For a while, at least. Eventually, though, I switched my voter designation to Independent and have tried to keep an open mind. I thereafter have watched the Obama movement as an outsider, intrigued but wary.

Yet I cannot disregard the genuine hope that Obama represents, and not just for Democrats. His confidence, his humor, his authenticity, and -- most importantly -- his call to look beyond Baby Boomer blinders represented by the older generation of politicians, inspire me to believe that this guy could be the real deal. Already the Clinton campaign is floundering in its efforts to catch up with Obama. Hillary Clinton's claim that she's represented the force of change for 35 years comes across as almost pathetic. And it's not quite fair. Hillary Clinton has made a good faith effort to advance her beliefs and to do some good in the world. While many folks on the other side of the political divide brand her as the antichrist, I could see myself supporting her in a normal campaign cycle. But these are not normal days. And Obama, almost coming from nowhere, represents something entirely new, a chance for real change.

That's where the déjà vu comes from. Because as much as Obama inspires me, he also reminds me of the many times in which we thought we'd turned a corner to better times. John Kennedy announced the passing of the torch to a new generation, and then he was gunned down in Dallas. MLK and Bobby followed soon after. Others, inspired by those three great men, proved to be all too human, possessing the flaws of Shakespearean tragedy. Members of the so-called Silent Majority saw an essential decency in Richard Nixon, and were paid for their faith with Watergate. A generation later, people like me believed in Bill Clinton the president, but grew to be ashamed by Bill Clinton the man. And today we consider the case of Barack Obama. Undoubtedly, Obama could pull it off; he could be president. And so many Americans are ready to believe in their president once more. But what Obama represents, hope, is fragile when compared to history.

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