Obama dreaming

Tuesday, 8 January 2008 

Let’s start with a confession. This blogger is not inspired by Obama’s candidacy.

There, it’s been said. It’s not that it’s not nice to have a black person trying for the top job in the US, although it has been done before (e.g. Jesse Jackson). It’s just that whenever Obama speaks, he comes across to this blogger as preachy and, it must be said, a little boring.

Exactly what it was about Obama that made it difficult to maintain concentration was hard to pin down until the speech after the Iowa caucuses that has produced such ecstasy in the media, even from crusty right-wingers. Barely anywhere in it is there a sense of taking on the Republicans. This is his strength but also his problem.

Despite the enthusiasm of these primaries, politically the Democrats are in a demoralised state. Their recovery of control of the Congress and Senate in 2006 has only exposed their fear in taking on what must surely be the weakest and most unpopular Republican Administration since Nixon during the final days of Watergate.

This timidity and lack of political will is summed up by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, who while maintaining the watered-down Third Way of her husband, talks up the power of the Republican machine like he never did. Yet anybody watching the Republican New Hampshire debate would only see a shambles rather than anything that looked like it could turn into a powerful political force in November. Despite the unpopularity of the President, the Republican candidates are struggling to break away and when they do, they sound like Ron Paul, whose claim that US foreign policy was to blame for 9/11 made his fellow candidates cringe.

Commentators have complained that Obama is style but little substance, but here the style is the thing. On substance he differs little from Clinton or any mainstream Democrat (indeed in the New Hampshire debate Obama gave the most hawkish response to a hypothetical nuclear threat in Pakistan, which as the moderator rightly noted, followed Bush’s pre-emptive strike doctrine and must raise questions over the value of Obama’s opposition to the last one in Iraq). His backers are not that different from Clinton’s (unless his forty-year old Wall Street bankers are more progressive than her fifty-year old ones), which presumably helped him buy 40% more ad slots in Iowa than Clinton in the run up to Christmas.

However, whereas Clinton claims to be the only one capable of taking on the supposedly mighty Republican machine, Obama’s appeal rests in denying it is even necessary. Obama promises to cross the political divide, a commitment made personal by promising to cross the racial one as well. For a nervous and demoralised Democrat party, avoiding a direct fight with the Republicans has some appeal, especially to the most demoralised part of it, those who bother to vote in Democrat primaries but call themselves Independents. It also has some appeal to those observers in the media and elsewhere who find the Democrat-Republican tussle increasingly pointless.

It will be interesting to see how long the Democrats wish to avoid the thought of taking on the Republicans. Clinton’s problem is that they seem in no hurry to do so. As far as some Democrats see it, she represents a return to the toxic politics of the last fifteen years, by which they mean Republican attacks on them. However, surely they will have to face it eventually. Even Edwards, who spent most of the NH debate sucking up to Obama (presumably because he thought it would be easier to take him on in the end than Clinton) had to remind Obama that ‘you cannot nice these people to death’.

This blog had made a vow to restrict itself to Australian politics and not follow the shift in attention to the US primaries by other Australian political blogs. But that is exactly the point. Given all the interest in the tiny Iowa caucuses and a US candidate who is unexciting except for his skin colour, it is hard to believe that two months ago something happened that only has occurred twice before in the last half century of Australian political history, the advent of a Labor government.

However, there is already a sense that this Labor government is not like others. For some, Obama appears to be filling a gap that Rudd has not filled (sentiment best summed up in posts by the Economics Editor of the Canberra Times). The mood has especially turned sour in some parts of the blogosphere over Labor’s introduction of internet filtering laws over Christmas (censorship is of course a bad thing, it just seems easier to complain about it than writing something worth censoring). It is surprising that there is such a fuss now given that there was barely a murmur of criticism over this policy’s inclusion in Labor’s election platform. Maybe this was missed because like the way Obama is being scrutinised, hope does not mean clarity.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 8 January 2008.

Filed under Media analysis

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