The Obama Zeitgeist
October 18, 2006
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.
With the 2008 presidential campaign about to begin in earnest, the Democrats who want to reach the White House—and the voters who will choose between them—might want to take a close look at the campaign of one George W. Bush, circa 2000.
Successful presidential candidates understand that in order to win they must calibrate their campaigns to the particular historical moment in which they operate. In 2000 Bush did this as well as anyone has, and therein lie some important lessons—and some revealing clues about how successful the potential Democratic candidates might be. The candidate best positioned to capture the moment may be one who is getting increasing buzz in the last few weeks: Barack Obama.
In 2000, one of Bush’s favorite gimmicks was to raise his right hand and pre-enact his swearing-in, a trick he borrowed from John F. Kennedy. (Faced during the 1960 campaign with some similar questions about whether he was seasoned enough to become president, Kennedy recited the oath of office as a way of enabling voters to picture him as president.) But Bush added a twist, saying with hand aloft, “When I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the law of the land, but I will also swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God!”
Time For Healing
That did more than contrast him to Clinton; combined with clever image-making around the idea of “compassionate conservatism,” Bush successfully presented himself as the cure for the ailments of the political era that was coming to a close. He wasn’t merely arguing that he wouldn’t cheat on his wife, he was making an implicit claim about the political future if he were elected. Put me in the Oval Office, he said, and we won’t have to suffer through the two parties ripping each other to shreds over what was left on somebody’s blue dress.
Bush understood that though the public liked Clinton, they weren’t too happy about the political developments of his second term. In 2000, success lay in distancing the candidate from both parties’ sins. The question for Democratic contenders now is how they can offer themselves as the solution to the political problems of the present moment.
Doing so will require candidates to contrast themselves with Bush and to place themselves in opposition to everything people don’t like about the current political atmosphere. That means not just the political Thunderdome that is Capitol Hill, but also the way people perceive that politics has sent Americans everywhere into two mutually distrustful camps.
That perception may be right or wrong, and on another day we can discuss whether it’s in the long-term interest of progressives to fight the culture war through frontal assault or subtle jiu-jitsu. But for the moment, let’s accept that Americans are looking not just for someone who is different than George W. Bush, but someone whom they can believe will bind up our nation’s political and cultural wounds.
The man more and more Democrats are putting their hopes in is Obama, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois whose new book is being released this week in what many see as a first gentle toe-dipping into the presidential waters. (Obama is on the cover of this week’s Time magazine; you can read an excerpt of his book here.) Whether Obama should start a presidential campaign now, after just two years in the Senate, is not a simple question—Ezra Klein made the argument against it here, while I detailed some arguments in favor here.
But whether he does run or not, Obama has situated himself in a way that at the very least offers Democrats a lesson in how powerful rhetoric can capture and exploit a political moment. Already in his short career he has given two speeches that students of rhetoric will probably be reading 50 years from now. These were his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention, and his 2005 commencement address at Knox College, in which he laid out an extraordinary interpretation of American history as the story of progressives triumphing over conservatives. Other potential presidential candidates may have strong cases to make for why they would be a better Democratic nominee in 2008, but there is no one in the Democratic Party who displays as sophisticated an understanding of the symbolic terrain on which political rhetoric operates as Obama.
You, Me, Us
To understand why Obama could do what Bush did in 2000, we can look back at his speech at John Kerry’s convention, the moment that turned him from rising star into Democratic supernova. The speech still reads as though it had been refined for years, mapping out the philosophical foundation for Obama’s entire career. Many noted Obama’s assertion that the red state/blue state divide was less than it was cracked up to be:
We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.
But the most important passage—and the speech’s emotional climax—came at the end, when Obama talked about “the audacity of hope.” (In a remarkable coincidence, that happens to be the title of Obama’s new book.)
It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
Put aside the obligatory nods to his party’s nominees; the last part of this litany situates the progressive vision of America within Obama himself, and does so without sounding self-important. He takes what might be a political liability—his polyglot heritage and name unusual to American ears—and turns it into not just a strength, but the very thing that makes him not only distinctly American but the embodiment of what we want America to be. It also contains an implicit question: The skinny kid believes that America has a place for him, too—is it true? The fact that Obama is standing at the podium gives the answer, and we all celebrate it—yes, our country does make a place for that kid, and that is what makes it so extraordinary.
In 2000, Bush offered a political reconciliation: Elect me and the bitter partisanship will come to an end. “I don’t have enemies to fight,” he said at his 2000 convention, “and I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.”
That was a promise that today no one could plausibly claim Bush meant in the first place, but it was just what many Americans wanted to hear. In a similar way—and sincerely, it appears—Obama is offering a national reconciliation. Bush made an argument about who he was—upstanding, moderate, uninterested in partisan sniping. Obama makes an argument about who we are, in the hopes that we can get beyond what divides us even though we disagree, and move to a new era of comity, perhaps not in Washington but in our own lives. Whether a politician can accomplish such a thing is not particularly relevant; the question is how much people want to believe what he says. He has kept sounding the same themes in the two years since.
It is this element of the political identity Obama has sought to create that distinguishes him, and that is so finely tuned to the current historical moment. Before he decided against running, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner was trying to fashion a version of this message, talking about his success in a red state finding solutions that were neither liberal nor conservative. The only problem with this argument—apart from the fact that he was making a general election case about not being partisan to Democratic primary voters, who are quite partisan—is that it confronts the problem too directly. It says, “You don’t like partisanship? I’m no partisan!” Obama’s message is much broader, seeming to have less to do with what kind of health care plan he’ll propose than about how we feel about one another and our country.
This broadness is what will allow Obama—should he choose to remain consistent with where he has come so far—to fashion a political agenda that is firmly progressive. Because he isn’t advocating a mushy centrism on policy, he can’t be accused of having an agenda that doesn’t match his words. Fierce Democratic partisans might reply that they have no interest in moving beyond red and blue; they’d rather just crush conservatives. After all, it’s not as though we can give James Dobson a hug and declare a truce in the culture war that the right will respect. But the fact is that most Americans—particularly those who are not inextricably wedded to either party—like the idea of moving beyond red and blue, even if it’s done with an unapologetically progressive agenda.
Of course, there is a strong possibility that Obama, who is still in his forties, will sit the 2008 presidential election out and bide his time for a future run (though he has garnered what may be the most important endorsement in America: Oprah’s). And the other potential Democratic candidates make up an extraordinarily talented and accomplished group, each with particular strengths. But whoever wins the nomination should take a close look at what Obama has done right up to now.