Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

04 April 2007

Obama's Touch of Greatness

The Obama campaign continues to generate pleasant surprises. Yesterday Senator Obama announced that he had raised $25 million in the first quarter, just one million shy of the $ 26 million raised by his chief rival.

Obama’s come-from-behind spurt may be a victory of sorts. Nearly all—$23.9 million—of his money is for the primary campaign. Senator Clinton is being coy about the share of her funds for the primary, so Obama may have an edge there.

The important question now is "why?" Why has Obama so captured the public’s imagination, nearly upsetting the anointed one? All the Democratic establishment backs Clinton. She has been a national figure in politics (albeit sometimes vicariously) since 1992. Virtually no one outside Illinois heard of Obama before 2004. What's going on?

The “life story” theory is easily dismissed. Obama has an interesting family history, but that's not rare in this age of international migration.

He also has a good “came from nowhere” story. But how unusual is that? Many of our leaders “came from nowhere." U.S. Grant was a drunk who became a general and president. Jimmy Carter was an unknown peanut farmer. Bill Clinton came from a famously broken home in Hope, Arkansas. And then there’s Abraham Lincoln, the self-made rail splitter. Tales of rising from nowhere are common in our politics, oft told and always milked to depletion.

The real life stories belong to Obama’s chief rivals. Hillary Clinton suffered what may be the most intensely publicized marital difficulties in human history. They served as cause for impeaching her husband. Yet she overcame them, saved her family and now is a serious contender for the presidency. John McCain suffered for half a decade in a North Vietnamese prison camp, refusing an offer to be let go before others. He returned to us broken in body, but not in spirit, and rose to become the Senate’s conscience. Those are real life stories.

In truth, Obama’s meteoric rise has little to do with his “life story.” It's his brand of politics, stupid. At this moment in history, he has what we need.

We are a divided and divisive nation. George W. Bush created more unnecessary conflict and strife than any president in U.S. history. At home, he inflamed the “culture wars” to the point of jihad. Abroad, he is our only president to have unintentionally started a civil war. In the process, he created a new political war here at home, which is now playing out in the halls of Congress. In February 2006, I wrote that “[h]ealing the deep wounds that Bush’s [divisive] approach has inflicted will take supernatural political skill.”

There is only one candidate running now who appears to have that level of skill: Obama. His near win in the first fund-raising “primary” suggests that many people agree on that point. With his 100,000 contributors, Obama bested Clinton in number of supporters by a factor of two.

Obama's most famous book, The Audacity of Hope, is full of stories of bridging the gap between seemingly irreconcilable opposites. The abortion stories are the ones I remember best. One time, Obama found his path to a rally blocked by passionate anti-abortion protestors. He stopped his car, got out, and went to talk with them. He shook their hands and invited them inside to hear what he had to say. He probably didn’t change any minds, but he made the effort, despite the intimidating atmosphere. Can you imagine Bush, with his stage-managed, Republicans-only extravaganzas, doing that?

On another occasion, a doctor wrote Obama a long letter, objecting to statements that the doctor had interpreted as disparaging the “pro-life” movement. Obama wrote back a letter of apology. In it, he acknowledged that both sides of this “hot button” issue have serious arguments worthy of respect. He ordered his campaign staff, in the future, to make sure that none of his campaign literature could be interpreted as disrespectful of the opposing position or those who hold it.

Obama’s ability to comprehend opposites and to soothe troubled minds is not new. During his student days, his understanding and appreciation of opposing points of view were legendary. His fellow students often commented that he seemed to know their hearts and minds intimately, although his ultimate position often differed from theirs.

This is not to say that Obama is wishy-washy or a “flip-flopper.” Quite the contrary. His views are clearly stated and consistent. On abortion he is “pro choice,” not “pro life.” (I put these labels in quotes because they are both ridiculous caricatures of positions on a difficult, troubling and divisive issue.) Yet he understands and respects both sides. He not will, like lesser men, use controversy on this issue to distract people’s attention from more important problems.

As for the war in Iraq, Obama has been against it since before our invasion. Yet he is smart enough to know the consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, and he understands deeply the national pride and embarrassment that keep so many people, including our president, from admitting and correcting a horrendous mistake. Obama has been far more decisive on this grave issue than his rival Clinton.

Obama's uncanny ability to soothe by understanding and empathy is rare in people generally, let alone politicians. John Edwards doesn't seem to have it. His "Two Americas" approach during the 2004 campaign invited class warfare. Like the good trial lawyer that he is, Edwards promised to "fight" for the "little guy" against drug companies, corporations and the rich. If you like Russian history and want some of it for us, be sure to vote for John Edwards.

As for Hillary Clinton, she's a political calculating machine. It's hard to discern in her methodical "triangulation" genuine human understanding or sympathy for anyone, let alone for a point of view. Without that human touch, how can she possibly cool the tempers raised by Bush's propaganda juggernaut, let alone move forward?

We know already that Obama is an extraordinary man, quite apart from his intelligence and charisma. Anyone who would try to quit smoking in the midst of a presidential campaign has true grit.

We also have clear and definite hints of greatness in him, although so far they are only hints. How strong these qualities are in him will become clearer as the campaign progresses. Yet even now, he has given us all reason for real optimism, which no other candidate has done.

To those of us who would like campaigns on real issues, Obama has given another reason for hope. He has promised, if nominated and if his opponent agrees, to accept federal funding and eschew private contributions for the general election. So has John McCain. If Obama and McCain are both nominated, we may see the cleanest, least corrupted, most polite and issue oriented campaign in recent history. Wouldn't that be a boost for hope?

Obama's spectacular success in the fund-raising “primary” doesn't reflect his background or his life story. It reflects his admirable character, his fresh brand of politics, and their promise of national reconciliation and a more rational future. After a long, long dry spell of skilled troublemakers---from Gingrich to Bush and Rove---we have seen a touch of greatness, and we want more.

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