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Home > India > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

Obama's Rise and Rise: Camelot or Bust?

February 27, 2008

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There certainly is a buzz around Barack Obama. His string of ten straight victories over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries has startled both pundits and average voters. I am yet to be bewitched by Obama's oratorical flourishes, but those who have heard him appear to be enraptured. The extravagant comparisons to John Kennedy's fabled Camelot, the enthusiastic youngsters who mob him everywhere, the immense fund-raising he has managed -- all this suggests that Obama's momentum is unstoppable.

That would be an interesting outcome: A photogenic and charismatic young black man selected as the candidate of the Democratic Party. It was not so long ago that Democratic presidential hopeful George Wallace of Alabama swore something about 'segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.' Indeed, the South of racism and the good ol' boy and Mississippi Burning (the story of two Jewish and a black civil rights workers murdered by whites) was solidly Democratic a generation ago.

It is also worth considering that Kennedy's was a different era, one when America, post-war, bestrode the world like a colossus. 2008 is very different from 1962; America is weakened. Besides, Camelot arouses such nostalgia because Kennedy was assassinated. Its actual accomplishments were mixed: the Space Race, yes, but also Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the near-triggering of nuclear war. Invoking Kennedy is a double-edged sword.

This may be reflected in the significant generation gap among voters: Those who remember Camelot and those who read about it later. It appears that the older generation is much more willing to accept Clinton's record of experience and maturity. The young are swept away by the promise of change and the idealism that are the cornerstones of the Obama campaign.

So Obama has, as they say, the 'Big Mo', momentum. He has certainly captured the attention of the American voter, and in fact of the entire world. A lot of it, of course, is the curiosity factor: Most people find it remarkable that a black man is now offering a credible challenge for the US presidency. After all, the brutal racism known as Jim Crow, the segregation overturned by the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs Board of Education and Rosa Parks's refusal to yield a seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, are all within living memory.

There certainly has been considerable progress in the ability of individual blacks to rise to the top in the US: General Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice serving as secretary of state is evidence enough of that; so are icons like Eddie Murphy, Tiger Woods [Images], Michael Jordan. Whether this has extended to the black population at large is an open question; the statistics are grim: It is believed that a third of young black men are in jail on petty or major crimes. The status of other non-whites has also improved in the US, especially that of Asians and to a lesser extent Hispanics.

Yet, it is questionable whether America is ready to accept a non-white as the commander-in-chief. The president is almost deified in the US, his (yes, his, as there has never been a woman in the position) every move and every word is analysed with great interest, he becomes the role model for youngsters. The very self-image of the average American is tied up with the President (with a capital P). And America still thinks of itself as largely white, in fact WASP, white Anglo-Saxon protestant. This leads to some cognitive dissonance in Obama's case.

As a result, it is unclear whether the enthusiasm shown by the crowds today will translate into a winning coalition come November. Here is an unusually articulate and charismatic black candidate with few ties to the establishment; and he is only 46. This certainly appeals to the young who are inherently anti-establishment and also more open-minded. But will he be able to rope in enough special interest groups?

In opinion polls conducted today pitting Obama against the putative Republican candidate, John McCain, Obama ends up winning by a margin of 7 per cent, I was informed recently by a partisan e-mail correspondent. Whereas Clinton would lose in a head-to-head contest by McCain, he added. This is intriguing: After all, the Democrats want someone to head their ticket who will actually win. And after eight years of Bush II, this is the best chance in years for Democrats to win big.

But do these opinion polls mean that much? The prejudices of the pollsters enter into the picture, as has been seen often in the disastrous predictions of so-called psephologists in India. Besides, it is likely that many people will appear more liberal in a poll than they really are. They may not reveal their true sentiments to a random stranger. This may well mean that some of Obama's perceived support will vanish at the polling booth.

Exclusive: Barack Obama, in his own words

There is another serious issue with the candidate: That he is all sizzle and no steak. That is, he is full of nice-sounding, high-minded, but impractical rhetoric. After all, he really has no track record, and therefore has not had to make any tough decisions that a president will have to make. His oratory is nice; but, as the little old lady said, "Hey, where's the beef?" Yes, we all want world peace and want to stop global warming, but vague talk, however inspirational, isn't going to get us there.

Obama's watchword is change; he turns necessity into a virtue by suggesting that he, not being beholden to the dreaded vested interests, will run an untainted, virtuous administration that pays attention to the real problems. All very nice, but exactly what is he going to change?

Is Obama going to immediately pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan? That would be disastrous, conceding victory to the fundamentalists. Is Obama going to bring in universal health care? His proposals are impractical: Clinton's plan is much more sensible. Is Obama going to single-handedly rescue the recession-bound American economy? Unlikely, given the structural damage of the housing bubble, the excesses of the banking industry and years of over-consumption and under-saving.

Is Obama going to change American foreign policy so that the US stops supporting dictators like Pakistan's Musharraf? Unlikely, as the status quo ante helps certain American interests. Is Obama going to immediately reverse the decline in American education and competitiveness? It would be very interesting to hear how he will do that, other than through rhetoric. Is Obama going to move away from depending on Saudi petro-dollars? Perhaps he won't be so craven as Bush, but the co-dependency cannot be reversed overnight.

Is Obama going to make the plight of oppressed racial minorities in America much better? He has carefully avoided making his campaign black-centric, and sensibly so; if he were elected, he'd still have to tread carefully to avoid being seen as biased. How is Obama going to rein in rampaging China and resurgent Russia [Images]? It is not clear he has the means, or indeed, much of a clue about the state of global realpolitik. Is Obama going to reduce global warming by America dramatically? It would be miraculous if he manages to do so.

It is, therefore, not entirely clear exactly what Obama is going to change. Creating high expectations without much of a plan behind it may or may not work. Obama may be able to beat Clinton based on all this, but McCain may not be quite so easy.

Hillary Clinton suffers from some disadvantages: one, that she has been over-exposed, and the public is tired of her, and of her spouse. Two, it may well be that Americans are more sexist than racist. But there is no question about her competence or her experience; she may have fallen out of favour with the opinion-leaders, but in terms of ability to get things done, she is better than Obama. Besides, Bill Clinton [Images] was the famous 'comeback kid,' so it may well be that Hillary will do the same in the home stretch.

There are also some issues about Obama's faith that will undoubtedly be put under a microscope in the rough-and-tumble of a campaign against McCain. Apparently Obama's personal pastor is an Afro-centrist to the extent that staffers had to overrule Obama's desire to have him participate in the campaign, worried that he would annoy whites: Divisive rather than inclusive.

And indeed, there is some murky stuff about Obama's religion. He wears his Christian faith on his sleeve, loudly proclaiming all the right Jesus-saves stuff for all to hear. But is it that 'milady doth protest too much'? It is a fact that Obama was born a Mohammedan, to a Mohammedan father (a Kenyan) and a converted-Mohammedan (white) mother. He spent some years of his childhood with his Mohammedan step-father in Indonesia. All this makes him, forever, a Mohammedan in the eyes of, say, Saudi Arabia. Is that why Obama emphasises his Christian-ness so loudly?

This has also led to persistent rumours that Obama is a Manchurian Candidate, someone whose loyalties lie elsewhere.Whether or not this is true, there will be a determined smear-campaign to this effect. In an America that feels embattled both by terrorism and by the influx of foreign money, this may well resonate.

At the end of the day, it is quite likely that Obama will not be a winning candidate against McCain. The Republicans, even though they are on the ropes now, may yet make a comeback against Obama. It is not clear whether Clinton would make a better candidate in a one-on-one battle. The story of the only previous female candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, is salutary -- perhaps it is not yet time for a woman to become president or even vice-president.

There is an intriguing possibility, though. The Democrats really want to win the White House; being in the political wilderness for the last eight years has whetted their appetite for office and the spoils that go with it. Besides, with a deeply unpopular incumbent, and many Republican politicians looking weak, this is their best chance to gain a sweeping victory. They are not going to sacrifice that at the altar of Obama-worship.

Therefore, one of the possibilities that may emerge from the Democractic Convention is as follows: they will draft Al Gore [Images]. After all, Gore actually did win the presidency some years ago, only to be cheated out of it on technicalities. And since then, he has burnished his credentials, winning not only a Nobel Prize [Images] but also an Oscar, sort of the ultimate expression of popular-culture demi-god stature in America. So Gore may well be persuaded to be on top of the ticket.

It is extremely unlikely that Gore would want to have Clinton as his running mate. His experiences with Hillary and Bill in the White House for some years would have cured him of any such desire. This leads to the possibility of a Gore-Obama ticket; which could well be a winner. Gore's southern roots may win them votes there, otherwise the Bubbas would vote en masse against the black man. In the West, Northeast and MidWest, both of them have enough charisma. Gore's stolid earnestness combined with Obama's oratorical flourishes may be just the ticket. It is likely that that's about as close as Obama is going to get to being President of the US. 'Impeachment insurance for Gore', did I hear someone say, as in the case of Dan Quayle?

Comments welcome at my blog at http://rajeev2007.wordpress.com


Rajeev Srinivasan




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