After the Iowa caucuses, I got what I think of as "the letter" from a friend whose political activism I respect very much:
Okay, so I read the speech -- and then, since the text struck me as rather ordinary, I watched the video -- and that was more interesting, but I remain unconvinced.
Many of the (few) specifics in "the letter" seem shallow to me: Obama may have opposed the war before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but he has voted to fund it repeatedly and done nothing discernible to encourage backbone in Congressional Democrats who are enabling the war. Worse yet, he makes no serious critique of the imperial pretensions that got us into the war, while currently endorsing military intervention in Pakistan. The only Chicago campaigns he won were the ones in which he'd made himself the only viable candidate; his Senate race was against a joke. It is not clear to me that he has ever won a contested election campaign, though he did just win one party primary and looks to take New Hampshire as well. I don't know if I am seeing streetwise or smooth, though he certainly comes across as smart and likeable.
So, for the last couple of days, I've been trying to "get it". What is the Obama boom about anyway? What follows are semi-digested snippets.
- The guy certainly is an organizer. That's the main lesson I take from the Iowa speech; he tells the people they won the fight and he makes them believe it. For any of us who hold that mobilizing the people is the content of democracy, that's always the message.
- The speech was wonderful on atmospherics -- hope over fear, unity over division, change. The delivery was charismatic. But what, if anything, did he say? Nothing extraordinary I could discern. He makes the right noises on ending the Iraq war, access to health care, jobs -- the catalog that is the litany of Democratic issues. None of the candidates are deeply convincing on these vital matters; Obama shows he can name them, but that great organizer gives only a hint of a plan for getting there against opposition. Hope is necessary, but it is not sufficient when struggling with forces that will buy you if they must or kill you if they have to.
Many hope or fear he is a new John F. Kennedy, a charismatic figure whose election brought youth and vigor to a stodgy country. Young people do thrill to him -- that makes sense to me, because I am fortunate to have worked politically with lots of young people. Many are sick to death of feeling simply stuck, unable to move on to solving obvious problems because of fights that seem to them mired in old history. They want a hero who feels like one of their own to cut through the morass; Obama has won that role. The JFK role can have many implications. This comment catches some of the hopefulness that came of the JFK election:
And this comment catches the pain of the aftermath:
Of course, we, the tired and the disillusioned, don't get to tell anyone who they can fall in love with -- it is not our time.
And we can't ignore race and the country's white supremacist past and present... Just as I was before Iowa, I remain convinced that Obama leans so strongly in his rhetoric on a promise to unite rather than fight because, for an ambitious Black man in this still racist country, convincing whites they should not feel threatened remains Number One Job. He's had a lifetime learning to perform that pre-requisite to success; doing it well got him Harvard and the Senate; he's not going to change now. This makes me nervous -- in the President's office, would he dare to get much of the country's back up if he had to? Or would he follow a life long pattern of trying to draw in the forces who'll be arrayed against him -- the warmongers, the corporate lobbyists and the health profiteers? It's the powerless who lose most if their chosen champion makes nice with their enemies. The issue is one of trust.
After Iowa, after digging into what Obama says and what others say about him, I'll still probably vote for Edwards in California. The white guy from the south forced the others to deal with the critical issues that face Democratic constituents, so he gets my single vote, and I am not working for anyone.
I don't go into Democratic Presidential primaries expecting to love any candidate (these are actually all relatively adequate; I don't even hate Clinton). Once in office, any of them would require frequent kicks in the pants from progressives to keep them marginally on our side. You see, I think there are sides. Does Obama believe in his heart that there are sides? That's what I continue to wonder.