TIME Magazine, February 7, 2008
"We are the ones we've been waiting for," Barack Obama said in yet another memorable election-night speech on Super-Confusing Tuesday. "We are the change that we seek." Waiting to hear what Obama has to say — win, lose or tie — has become the most anticipated event of any given primary night. The man's use of pronouns (never I), of inspirational language and of poetic meter — "WE are the CHANGE that we SEEK" — is unprecedented in recent memory. Yes, Ronald Reagan could give great set-piece speeches on grand occasions, and so could John F. Kennedy, but Obama's ability to toss one off, different each week, is simply breathtaking. His New Hampshire concession speech, with the refrain "Yes, We Can," was turned into a brilliant music video featuring an array of young, hip, talented and beautiful celebrities. The video, stark in black-and-white, raised an existential question for Democrats: How can you not be moved by this? How can you vote against the future?
And yet there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — "We are the ones we've been waiting for" — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. "This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It's different not because of me. It's different because of you." That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause — other than an amorphous desire for change — the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.
That is not unprecedented. It has echoes of Howard Dean's 2004 primary effort, although in Dean's case the propellant was substance, not rhetoric — the candidate's early courageous voice against the war. But Dean soon found that wasn't enough. In June 2003 he told me he needed to broaden his movement, reach out past the young and the academic and find a greater array of issues that could inspire working people. He never quite found that second act, and his campaign became about process, not substance: the hundreds of thousands of supporters signing up on the Internet, the millions of dollars raised. He lost track of the rest of the world; his campaign was about ... his campaign.
Obama would never be so tone-deaf, but he is facing a similar ceiling, a similar inability to speak to the working people of the Democratic Party (at least, those who are not African American) or find an issue, a specific issue, that distinguishes him from his opponent. And his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has proved herself tough, specific and reliable — qualities that become increasingly important as the economy teeters and as worries about the future gather in the land.
This has become an odd campaign for Democrats. There is good news ... and fear. The good news is that this time the people seem far more interested in their party than in the Republicans. On Super Tuesday, at least 15,417,521 voted Democratic, and 9,181,297 voted Republican. And more good news: both Obama and Clinton are very good candidates who hold similar positions on most issues, moderates who intend to reach out to Republicans after they are elected — although, given Clinton's undeserved reputation as a partisan operative, that may be a tougher sell for her than for Obama. But this is not a struggle for the ideological soul of the party. It may, however, be a struggle for the party's demographic soul — older voters vs. younger, information-age workers vs. industrial and service workers, wine vs. beer. There is also — and I will try to tread lightly here — the classic high school girl/boy differential: the note-taking, front-row girl grind vs. the charismatic, last-minute-cramming, preening male finesse artist. Both Clinton and Obama have difficulties reaching across those divides, and that is where the fear resides: neither candidate may prove strong or broad enough. As this campaign progresses, their weaknesses — the reasons for their inability to put away this nomination — are going to become more apparent than their strengths.
Clinton's strengths are most apparent in debates, which is why she is pressing to have one each week. She simply knows more than Obama does. In recent weeks, she has been far more likely to take questions from the press and public than Obama is. That appeals to voters more interested in results than in inspiration; it especially appeals to the middle-class women, juggling job and family, who are the demographic heart of the Democratic Party. Clinton's weaknesses are intractable. They are wrapped up in her husband, who nearly ruined her campaign in the two weeks after Iowa but seems to have been relegated to the back of the bus in recent days. And they are wrapped up in her age. She is a baby boomer, of a generation that has been notably obnoxious and unsuccessful in the public arena. Perhaps the most dreadful baby-boom political legacy has been the overconsulted, fanatically tactical, poll-driven campaign — and Clinton has suffered whenever she has emphasized tactics over substance. Her lame attempts to "go negative" on Obama have been almost entirely counterproductive. Her husband's attempts to paint Obama as a "race" candidate — his resort to the most toxic sort of old-fashioned politics — only reinforced the strangely desperate nature of their campaign. It was the very opposite of "Yes, We Can" politics.
Obama's strength is inspiration, and it's also his weakness. In the recent past, Democrats have favored candidates who offer meaty, detailed policy prescriptions — usually to the party's detriment — and that is not Obama's game. After his Iowa victory, his stump speech had become a soufflé untroubled by much substance of any sort. He has rectified that, to some extent. He now spends some time talking about the laments of average Americans he has met along the way; then he dives into a litany of solutions he has proposed to address the laments. But those are not nearly so convincing as Clinton's versions of the same; of course, Clinton has a tragic deficit when it comes to inspiration.
There is an odd, anachronistic formality to Obama's stump speech: it is always the same. It sets his audiences afire, but it does not reach very far beyond them. It is no accident that Obama is nearly invincible in caucus states, where the ability to mobilize a hard core of activists is key — but not so strong in primaries, where more diverse masses of people are involved. He should be very worried that this nomination is likely to be decided in the big working-class primary states of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Then again, one of Obama's most effective lines is about the "craziness" of trying the same old thing in Washington "over and over and over again, and somehow expecting a different result." The first politician I ever heard use that line — weirdly attributed to everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Albert Einstein — was Bill Clinton. It is a sad but inescapable fact of this election that Bill and Hillary Clinton have now become "the same old thing" they once railed against. In a country where freshness is fetishized — and where a staggering 70% of the public is upset with the way things are today — the "same old thing" is not the place to be. Unless, of course, the next new thing turns out to be a mirage.
Link to article: http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1710721,00.html