Explaining the riddle
From The Economist print edition
The man who has called himself “a blank screen” is about to take centre-stage
EIGHT YEARS ago Barack Obama was thoroughly humiliated at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. He had recently lost a congressional primary in Chicago, and both his political and personal bank accounts were empty. The rental car company rejected his credit card. He failed to get hold of a floor pass and ended up watching the proceedings on a big screen in a car park. He returned home with his tail between his legs before the week was out—and left the celebrations to the people who mattered, not least the Clintons, who took every chance to seize the limelight from the Gores.
This year Mr Obama is the Democratic convention. The Pepsi Centre in Denver will be chock-a-block with people cheering about “hope” and “change”. On August 28th Mr Obama will deliver his acceptance speech at a local football stadium, Invesco Field, before an audience of more than 70,000. The man who could not get a floor pass in Los Angeles has a better than even chance of winning the presidential election in November—the current Intrade market odds are running 61 to 38 in his favour—and thereby becoming America’s first non-white president.
Mr Obama has gripped America’s imagination, and indeed the world’s, like nobody since the last Democratic senator to win the presidency, John Kennedy. Across the country, from freezing Iowa to hotter-than-hell Nevada, huge armies of Americans have queued for hours to listen to his speeches. Few have been disappointed. Mr Obama looks too frail to bear the weight of all the expectations that have been loaded upon him—like a gangly graduate student rather than a political titan. But “frailty” is the last word that comes to mind when you see him in action. One conservative compared his reaction to seeing Obama on stage to that of the hero of “Jaws” when he sees the monstrous shark—“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Obamamania has inevitably produced a backlash: anti-Obama books are currently riding high in the New York Times bestseller list. But his achievement remains extraordinary. George Bush was the son of a president and grandson of a senator. Mr Obama is the son of a Kenyan student who abandoned young Barack when he was only two. Mr Obama enjoyed a career which puts his born-in-the-purple predecessor to shame: he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, the author of two good, if narcissistic, books (which, breaking the political mould, he wrote himself) and a senator by his mid-40s. He has thriven in post-September-11th America despite the fact that his father was a nominal Muslim and his middle name is Hussein.
Mr Obama seized his party’s nomination from the most powerful machine in Democratic politics: a machine created by the first two-term Democratic president since FDR and inherited by a woman who combined the clout of an insider with the promise of becoming the first female president in American history. (Women make up more than 50% of the population, blacks are a mere 12%.) Mr Obama’s supporters argue that he demonstrated both judgment and character in coming out against the hugely popular Iraq invasion. He predicted that the war would be “of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences”. They also argue that his magnetic appeal to young people offers his party the chance to win over an entire generation, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.
Mr Obama thus represents extraordinary opportunities for the Democratic Party; but there are huge risks, too. He lost a succession of big swing states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, during the primaries. Some of the most important swing groups in the country remain deeply suspicious of his arugula-flavoured politics. Exit polls show that in the primary season Mr Obama won only about a third of Latinos, Catholics, whites without college degrees and whites over 60. This is doubly worrying for Democrats given the appeal of his Republican rival, John McCain, to independents, blue-collar types and older folk. Many Americans remain to be persuaded, and are still full of questions.
Who is Barack Obama? The best clues to that riddle can be gleaned from his two volumes of autobiography. He spent the first half of his life in search of a stable identity. He looked “black”. But he was the son of a white mother from Kansas and an African, rather than an African-American, father from Kenya. He spent four years in Indonesia, where he attended local schools (including a Muslim one) and ate local delicacies such as dog, grasshopper and snake, on which his stepfather fed him. He eventually ended up living with his white grandparents in Hawaii.
The young Obama flirted with the “blackness” of the inner-city, growing an Afro, skimping on school work and experimenting with marijuana and a little cocaine. But he eventually pulled himself together and joined the American meritocracy, attending Occidental College, Columbia University and, later, Harvard Law School.
Mr Obama found the answer to his search for identity in black Chicago. He started his career as a “community organiser” on Chicago’s South Side, the largest black community in the country. He joined one of the city’s most prominent black churches, Trinity United, and abandoned his youthful agnosticism in favour of Christianity (Trinity’s Afrocentric bent, with its African visitors and women dressed in African robes, may have particularly appealed to the son of an African). He married a black woman with deep roots on the South Side, and had his two daughters baptised at Trinity.
The rootless cosmopolitan now had roots for the first time in his life. But Mr Obama was determined not to be trapped by black politics. This was partly a matter of generational change. Mr Obama is part of a new wave of black politicians such as Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, who have embraced post-racial politics. But it was also a matter of raw ambition. “He’s always wanted to be president,” admits Valerie Jarrett, one of his closest advisers. Mr Obama realised that his post-racial identity was a golden ticket to the White House.
Personality partly explains how he has risen so far, so fast. But he has also enjoyed a charmed political career. His Republican opponent for the Illinois Senate seat, Jack Ryan, self-destructed when it was revealed that he forced his wife to attend sex clubs “with cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling”. Mr Ryan’s replacement was one of the standing jokes of American politics, Alan Keyes. “All I had to do was keep my mouth shut”, Mr Obama confessed, “and start planning my swearing-in ceremony.”
There remains a mystery about his politics. David Mundell, his most thorough biographer, refers to his “ingenious lack of specificity”. One Democratic activist has called him “a kind of human Rorschach test”. Mr Obama himself confesses that “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”
So what does Mr Obama stand for? There are two well-rehearsed answers to the first question—one popular with his supporters, one popular with his opponents. Both are wrong.
The pro-Obama answer is that the young senator is a reformer without parallel, a change-maker and mould-breaker. Mr Obama’s campaign has been based on the twin promises of “change” and “hope”. The American political system is broken, the argument goes, dominated by special interests, divided by political hacks and disfigured by an unnecessary civil war between “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) America. Mr Obama promises to dethrone the lobbyists and reach out to people of goodwill, of whatever persuasion, who want to take back control of their country.
The problem with this argument is that Mr Obama has never pursued a serious reform agenda in any job he has held. He eased his way into his first job in politics, as a state senator in Illinois, by using a “petitions guru” to challenge the signatures his rival, Alice Palmer, had obtained to qualify for the ballot, an extraordinary move for a man who had made his name trying to get poor people to vote. He had a see-no-evil attitude to the Chicago political machine, one of the most corrupt in the country. (John Kass, a columnist on the Chicago Tribune, described his record as that of a man who “won’t make no waves and won’t back no losers”.) He had a disturbingly close relationship with Tony Rezko, a Chicago property magnate who made his career doing favours for politicians who could open doors to real-estate contracts, and who is now in prison. Mr Rezko contributed $250,000 to Mr Obama over his career, and bought a lot next to his house.
This go-along-to-get-along attitude continued once Mr Obama had made it to the Senate in Washington. He supported the farm bill and the override of the president’s veto, despite the fact that the bill sprayed money at agri-business and raised barriers against farmers in the developing world. A raft of pork projects, including Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere”, received his support. He used his star power to raise money for his political action committee, Hope Fund, and then disbursed nearly $300,000 to Democrats who might be useful in his election bid. The man who promises to reform America’s political system is the first presidential candidate ever to reject public funds for the general election.
The anti-Obama argument is that the Illinois senator is a “stealth liberal”: a man who talks inclusive talk but is bent on advancing hard-core “progressive” policies. Mr Obama is a disciple of Saul Alinsky, an activist who expanded the labour movement’s agenda to include a wide range of grievances beyond the workplace. His friends in Chicago included Jeremiah Wright, his long-time pastor, who believes that September 11th represented America’s chickens coming home to roost, and Bill Ayers, a former member of the terrorist Weathermen. The National Journal rated Mr Obama as the most liberal senator in 2007, to the left of Barbara Boxer and Ted Kennedy.
This ignores Mr Obama’s essential pragmatism. At every stage of his career he has calibrated the balance of political forces and adjusted his behaviour accordingly—embracing big-city liberalism when he was a Chicago politician, moving to the centre when he won his party’s presidential nomination. His personal style, too, is conciliatory. Everybody who has worked with him comments on his ability to forge relations with Republicans and conservatives. He prefers compromise and conciliation to confrontation.
Mr Obama’s most impressive achievement has been his outmanoeuvring of the mighty Clinton machine. There, too, as in his Senate race, he was greatly helped by outside factors. His ascent was the culmination of a shift in the balance of power in the Democratic Party that began with George McGovern in the late 1960s: the rise of the knowledge elite. Mr Obama’s political base lay in what John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have called “ideopolises”—cities such as San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, which are rich in academics and professionals. He encountered the stiffest resistance among blue-collar voters in rural Appalachia and in the decaying manufacturing towns of rustbelt America.
Mr Obama’s mixed-race ancestry helped to supercharge his liberal base. His hard-core supporters regard him not just as a “change agent” but also as a “transformational figure”—a man who, simply by dint of who he is, can repair America’s global image and, more important, make amends for the country’s racist past. His ancestry also provided him with the solid support of one of the party’s solidest non-elite constituencies, people who have done much of the party’s grunt work, black America.
His other trump card has been a talent for organisation. The Obama campaign, directed by David Axelrod (see article), has been the best-run in recent Democratic history, strikingly free of the personality clashes and general chaos that doomed Mrs Clinton’s efforts. It also outperformed the seasoned Clinton machine by every possible measure—raising more money, understanding the importance of the caucus states and mastering momentum.
Mr Obama understood from the first the power of the promise of “change” when two-thirds of Americans said the country was heading the wrong way. He made better use of new technology, such as social-networking sites, than any previous candidate. He also struck the perfect balance between central direction and popular enthusiasm—building support from the bottom up but also giving his volunteers clear goals and tough standards.
This will set him in good stead for the November election. Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s former strategist-in-chief, has frequently argued that the president mostly owed his re-election in 2004 to the fact that the campaign had recruited 1.4m volunteers. According to Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, the Obama campaign thinks it may be able to turn out four times that number, with local organisations in all 50 states. These volunteers will act both as grass-roots organisers and as “local validators”, working to persuade their friends and neighbours to vote for a man who, in his words, does not look like any of the other presidents on the currency.
What sort of president will Mr Obama make if he wins in November? His preference for avoiding specifics makes it particularly difficult to answer this question. As a senator, he has few legislative achievements to his credit—he has been running for the presidency since arriving in Washington—and no executive experience. But some things are clear. He will have everything going for him. The Democrats are likely to pick up another ten to 20 seats in the House and five to seven in the Senate. The defeated Republican Party will also be torn apart by a civil war over what it stands for and where it should be going. The press will swoon over America’s first black president. Much of the rest of the world, particularly the Europeans, will be captivated by the idea of the rebirth of “good America” after the disastrous Bush years.
Mr Obama’s talent for organisation suggests that he will create a smooth-working White House. One foreign-policy grandee was struck, in an early meeting with Mr Obama, by his interest in making things run efficiently, and particularly by his concern that the National Security Council should operate more effectively than it did under Condoleezza Rice.
He is also likely to make a virtue of his “reasonableness”, trying to reach out to the opposition and listening, as Mr Bush seldom does, to all sides of the argument. But his propensity for being all things to all men will inevitably produce disappointment. Mr Obama has presented himself as a business-friendly fellow, for example, frequently visiting the funding wells of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. But he will also be massively indebted to a labour movement that has devoted huge resources to getting him elected.
Not least because of inexperience, Mr Obama will probably pursue a cautious foreign policy. Paradoxically, the success of the “surge” in Baghdad, which he adamantly opposed, makes it more likely that he will be able to deliver on one of his central promises, to shift the focus of the “war on terror” from Iraq to Afghanistan and its lawless border with Pakistan. The Obama administration will introduce a revolution in America’s attitude to climate change. It will also make a virtue of working through multilateral institutions—something that Mr Bush never regarded as anything more than a necessary evil. But recent events, particularly Russia’s invasion of Georgia, suggest that he will spend most of his time swatting away crises and trying to extricate America from Iraq, rather than forging a new foreign-policy doctrine.
On the home front, Mr Obama is likely to devote much of his political capital to health-care reform. He wants to provide near-universal coverage through a combination of expanded government coverage, subsidies for the poor and regulation for companies and insurance providers. He is unlikely to be as hostile to free trade as his NAFTA-bashing rhetoric during the campaign suggested. But his tax plans will redistribute wealth from the rich, who have done fabulously over the past couple of decades; and his combination of expanded government activism and middle-class tax cuts will exacerbate one of America’s biggest structural problems, its horrific budget deficit.
Whatever happens in November, Mr Obama’s candidacy still marks an important turning-point in American history. The upper reaches of American politics have recently begun to look both plutocratic and incestuous: Mr Obama’s chief rival for the nomination was the wife of George Bush’s predecessor. Post-September-11th America was also gripped by a patriotic frenzy that threatened to degenerate into Muslim-bashing jingoism. Mr Obama is a genuine meritocrat who climbed the greasy pole on the basis of his own grit and determination. He is also the descendant of African Muslims, whose first name means “blessed” in Arabic.
Most of all, Mr Obama is a black man in a country that denied black people the vote as recently as 1964. Across the South, elderly black people who turned up to vote for Mr Obama in the primaries told stories of how they were once denied the vote on manufactured technicalities. Mr Obama will deliver his acceptance speech in Denver on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. That, in itself, is an extraordinary comment on how far America has come over the past half-century.
Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.
The Ax-man cometh
From The Economist print edition
David Axelrod is the architect of Barack Obama’s presidential run
ONE of the great ironies of the Obama campaign is that the man responsible for crafting the candidate’s hope-filled image is one of the unhappiest-looking men in American politics. David Axelrod persuaded a reluctant Barack Obama to embrace the “Yes We Can” slogan. He insisted from the first that the campaign should be built on the twin pillars of “hope” and “change”. But with his sad eyes and drooping moustache, Mr Axelrod has a perpetual air of gloom hanging over him.
He is currently the leading member of one of America’s most powerful clubs—the consultants, spin-meisters, string-pullers and behind-the-scenes operatives who run political campaigns. They are not elected to anything. But they shape American politics just as surely as their glad-handing front-men. Some of them, like Karl Rove (who worked for George Bush until last year) and James Carville (Bill Clinton) in the current generation, and Lee Atwater (George Bush senior) in the previous one, become famous; most of them are perfectly content to grow fat and powerful in the shadows.
Mr Axelrod’s formal title is “chief strategist”. But that hugely understates his influence. He has known the candidate for 16 years, longer than any of the other political operatives around him. He has helped to craft his image, put together his political team, provide him with national political connections and generally turn him into the phenomenon that he is today. In a political campaign that prides itself on its lack of hierarchy, “the Ax”, as he is generally known, is first among equals.
Mr Axelrod has been the leading political consultant in Chicago for more than two decades. He helped run Richard Daley’s successful campaign to reclaim his father’s job as mayor of Chicago; he also helped Rahm Emanuel, now one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful figures, to win his congressional seat. Mr Axelrod’s local success earned him a national reputation. Since 2002 his consultancy has worked on 42 primary or general-election campaigns around the country and won 33 of them—an 80% success rate. He has worked at one time or another for five of the Democratic candidates in the recent race (Mr Obama plus Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Chris Dodd and Tom Vilsack). One of his specialities is “packaging black candidates for white voters”. His list of black successes includes John Street, the former mayor of Philadelphia, and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, whose speeches sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to Mr Obama’s. One possible weakness, though, is that his expertise is mainly weighted towards winning urban battles.
One of Mr Obama’s luckiest breaks in a luck-laden career came in 2003, when Mr Axelrod agreed to run his Senate campaign rather than that of another potential client, Blair Hull, a fabulously rich investor. Mr Axelrod immediately grasped that he could sell his new client, with his mixed-race background and Ivy League pedigree, to both Chicago’s “lakefront liberals” and its black working class. He simultaneously set about using his contacts in the Washington press corps to present Mr Obama as a national star in the making.
Mr Axelrod has succeeded in imposing extraordinary discipline on the campaign. The Clinton campaign was a nest of hissing vipers, in which egotistical operatives such as Mark Penn and Howard Wolfson spent their time pursuing contradictory strategies and leaking to the press. The Obama campaign, by contrast, has been miraculously free from such woes. Mr Axelrod cleverly decided to install his friend and business partner, David Plouffe, a man who relishes the mechanics of getting out the vote, as campaign manager, creating a highly effective “axis of Davids”.
This discipline has been particularly notable when it comes to message control. The Obama campaign has stuck to the same message through thick and thin: when they were 20-plus points behind Mrs Clinton in the polls, and when they were racking up a succession of victories in February. This allowed them to create a clear brand identity for their neophyte candidate, even as Mrs Clinton dithered between presenting herself as a warrior queen, ready for a 3am call, or a put-upon everywoman fighting off tears.
Mr Axelrod has won nothing but applause for his performance during the primaries. But now that the general-election campaign has, in effect, begun, some Democrats are worrying that his magic touch may be deserting him. Why is Mr Obama stuck in the polls? And why is he less popular than his party? Some Democrats worry that he is not prepared to hit John McCain hard enough. This seems unlikely. Mr Axelrod is a product of Chicago’s street-fighting school of politics. Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist, puts him at the head of his list of “Guys I never want to see lobbing grenades at me again”.
The bigger problem lies with what has hitherto been the Obama campaign’s greatest strength—message control. Mr Axelrod firmly believes that the candidate is the message. The important thing is to tell a positive story about the candidate rather than to muddy the narrative with lots of talk about policy details.
This worked perfectly when Mr Obama was up against Mrs Clinton, a woman who agreed with him on most points of substance and whose own autobiography is messy, to put it mildly. But things are different with Mr McCain. As a Republican, Mr McCain is on the losing side of most policy issues, particularly when it comes to economic and domestic policy. But Mr Obama has still not figured out how to relate his grand rhetoric to the numerous specific policy positions that litter his website. Mr McCain also has one of the most compelling autobiographies in American politics—one that is more likely to appeal to the average American than the coming-of-age of a mixed-race child. For all his skills, Mr Axelrod may have chosen to fight on the one battlefield where the Republicans have a chance of winning.
|Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.|
The American presidential race
The hard road ahead
From The Economist print edition
Barack Obama still has a lot to do
ON AUGUST 28th, barring some dark manoeuvre by seething Clintonistas, Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Forty-five years to the day after Martin Luther King spoke of his dream, America will take a giant leap towards the realisation of that great call for justice. Hundreds of millions will watch, and be moved; Mr Obama seems to many, by reason of his race, his calm intelligence, his youthful good looks and his powerful oratorical skills, to be well suited to draw a line beneath the bitter Bush years and to repair America’s torn relationship with the outside world. One prominent pundit was much derided earlier this year for describing the tingle he got from listening to the candidate—but everyone knew exactly what he meant.
This moment comes as much through perspiration as through inspiration. Mr Obama’s achievement in defeating the Clinton machine was monumental. Hillary Clinton started out as the overwhelming favourite, with the Democratic Party establishment, not to mention its big-ticket donors, squarely behind her and poll leads that sometimes topped 20 percentage points. But Mr Obama ran a brilliant campaign, using the internet to harness the energy and the donations of an army of volunteers, and deploying them with tactical skill in almost every state. He managed the firestorm touched off by his intemperate pastor, Jeremiah Wright, with dignity and, eventually, ruthlessness.
When it comes to the issues, it is hardly surprising that The Economist is less impressed. Mr Obama’s tilt towards protectionism during the primary campaign was both wrong and dangerous. So was his insistence on denying funds to the “surge” that has worked so well (if belatedly) in Iraq, and his determination to withdraw troops from the conflict according to a rigid timetable. We are nervous about his incentive-destroying willingness to raise taxes sharply on the well-off, and of the cost implications of many of his policies. But we recognise that his positions have evolved as the campaign has moved from the primary stage, where politicians have to outdo each other in their appeal to their party faithful, to the general election. Were he to become president, they would move further to the centre again. And policies are by no means the whole story of an American election: character and leadership matter greatly, too. Mr Obama is an impressive nominee with the potential to be a fine president.
But the road to the White House is still a hard one. Even though the Republican brand is as contaminated as a Soviet-era reactor, and 80% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, Mr Obama is barely ahead of his septuagenarian Republican rival. He is less popular than his party as a whole: in “generic” polling, people prefer Democrats to Republicans by around 12 points, but Mr Obama is ahead of John McCain by an average of only around 45% to 43%. One poll this week had Mr McCain five points ahead. The presidential debates, which will start next month, usually sway a lot of voters. Mr Obama is generally held to have lost his only encounter so far with Mr McCain, in back-to-back interviews with Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor, on August 16th. In the battleground states which will determine the result, Mr McCain has steadily been gaining ground; if the polls are borne out, the result, as in 2000 and 2004, will be nerve-janglingly close.
Many Americans, including a dangerously large number of Democrats, still have their doubts about Mr Obama. Some see him as too young and inexperienced for a dangerous world; others find him unattractively self-regarding and aloof; still others question his patriotism. Many resent his apparent flip-flopping on important issues, like gun-control and whether or not to talk to Iran and Syria, as well as less important ones, like whether to wear a flag pin. His cynical breaking of a promise to be bound by federal campaign-finance limits was shabby by any standards. Perhaps the most damning criticism of him is that he has never exhibited political courage by daring to take on any of his party’s powerful interests, as his rival, John McCain, has done over many issues, including global warming, campaign-finance reform, immigration and torture.
From the moment of his coronation in Denver, Mr Obama will have 68 days to allay these doubts. There is not much he can do about his thin résumé or his lack of foreign-policy and security expertise, though he can mitigate the latter somewhat with an astute choice of running mate. And it is a bit late now for principled stands in the Senate. Mr Obama could certainly tone down the triumphalism: opting to make his acceptance speech not in the convention hall but in a 75,000-seater sports stadium seems like another mistake, akin to his hubristic rock-star’s tour of Europe. He needs to be a lot clearer and firmer about how he will deal with America’s foes and rivals: his first instinct when Russia invaded Georgia was to waffle. Acknowledging that the Iraq surge, which he tried to block, has worked would also be a sign of tough-mindedness.
Most of all, he needs to spend those 68 days showing that he understands, and can connect with, ordinary Americans. The economy ought to be the Democrats’ trump card, just as security tends to be the Republicans’. But some of the most surprising recent polls show that Mr Obama is rated lower by voters on how he would handle the economy than is Mr McCain, who has admitted that he doesn’t know much about the subject. That may be because Mr Obama often sounds curiously disconnected from the troubles of anyone except America’s very poorest. Mrs Clinton was much better at empathising with middle America, and Mr Obama needs to show he has learnt from her.
That could also help heal the wounds of the Democratic Party, which, after the bitter contest and Mr Obama’s narrow victory, are still raw. If the Democrats remain divided they will lose the presidency. Were that to happen, after Iraq, Katrina and an economic crisis, they might well want to consider an alternative line of work.