Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Sam Smith

Barack Obama has one overwhelming advantage in the race for the Democratic nomination: he's not Hillary Clinton. Which means that in some ways - most uncertain - things will be different than they have been under two decades of the Bush-Clinton duopoly.

The Pennsylvania results, however, show that Obama still has a long way before he translates his advantage into a win in November. The exuberant adoration of his core support has obscured a problem: Obama is a bit like a good opera singer trying to make it in rock n roll. He's fine behind a podium or on a pulpit, but give him a Philly cheese steak sandwich and he looks like he's just been handed a turd.

Fact is, Obama is mostly pictured in the media up on a platform, mostly above his audience, visually and metaphorically. This is not all his fault but it does reflect a certain disinterest by his manipulators in risking encounters of a more personal sort. Obama has on a number of occasions even shown his discomfort just hanging with the press, let alone ordinary voters. The other day, he complained because they were asking too many questions while he was eating a photo op waffle. After all, to do something like that natural like, a guy's got to concentrate.

A black politician who has done well with white voters recently explained that his secret was talking with them. Nothing changes views on anything quicker than personal experience.

What might have happened in Pennsylvania if there had been fewer crowd scenes and more film clips from conversations with a small group of white voters in ordinary homes?

But that isn't in the Obama play book. You can't be a prophet and humble at the same time.

Further, sensitivity to the concerns of the unconverted is not one of the Obama camp's virtues. Take the word change for example. Liberals at least think they know what it means. But if you're an upstate Pennsylvanian about to lose your house or your job, you may have seen more than enough change. The abstraction that brings in the big bucks may not do as well with the votes.

The alternative would be a campaign that revived the sort of populist economic and social issues that once made the Democratic Party something to be proud of. The sort of issues that once made Pennsylvania a comfortably Democratic state. But neither Obama nor Clinton wish to offend their funders and so they stick to the vague cliches. And in such situations, the most culturally familiar usually wins.

That's not racism. It's not the job of white rural Pennsylvanians to respond positively to Obama; it's his job to give them some reason to. And it starts with being more concerned with what happens in their valleys than to what happens to his tallies.

The secret of good minority politics in this country has always been: lead the majority. That's what the Irish and the Jews did. And it is why we are building a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall.

But it's got to be a cause greater than your own election. You have to show people who are not like you how you can make their lives better. You have to, in essence, join their cause just as King did with the anti-war movement and with the Poor People's Campaign.

The problem with Obama's campaign is that once he had gathered his fan club and worked them into a frenzy he was still left with the rest of the electorate. And this leaves the door open for blowhards like McCain or corrupt liars like Clinton. The problem with Obama is that it's only April and he's already peaked.

Pennsylvania was a place to prove otherwise, but he blew it. After all, given the limited choices Democrats had, the only reasonable decision was to vote for Obama or enter rehab. But Obama couldn't take the next step - from liberal and black idol to broad-based leader. In part this is because he seems to have forgotten one of the key rules of the community organizing he used to practice: the cause and the people you are serving always more important than you are. The issue should not be Obama but what Obama is going to do. And that remains the great mystery.


At April 23, 2008 5:15 PM, Anonymous benji said...

Dear Sam,

Thanks once again for this great and, as ever, sobering comment.

The vacuity of it all is hard to bear, and the temptation to want to believe! But absent clear policies and an identifiable social base project, such a large movement as Obama's can only go one direction: down taking with it much needed progressive energy.

It really pains me to see this. For some of his rhetoric is the most progressive heard at this level in a while. Yet it's as if the whole thing functions as a machine sucking progressive aspirations for social and environmental progress into the hot air of hope and change.

Is there room for anything else within the confines of this particular game?

At April 23, 2008 10:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never had the feeling that he is trying to reach me, or others that do not fit into one of those neatly defined stereotypes of American voters. But I guess I have more hope for what I do not know about him, than fear about what I do know about the other two candidates.

I would love to have my doubts about Obama proven wrong and can only hope he gets elected, changes the focus of government to serve the people, and shakes up the establishment.


At April 24, 2008 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is antoher very, very good essay. Thanks Sam.


At April 25, 2008 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have the candidate and we have the president. There's a difference. We can't know what Obama will do as president until he's elected. Being a candidate, meanwhile, is treading a minefield. Nervewracking, wondering if you're going to say the wrong thing. Gotta please the funders, gotta please the voters. The agonizing thing is that what the voters want is often what the funders fear. What we really need is a New Deal, but how are we going to be able to afford it? This primary phase feels like a long, long boxing match, and the contenders are on the ropes. If he gets too specific, then he hems himself in to promises that might not seem appropriate a year from now.


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