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Does Obama speak for a "new generation"?

November 30, 2007 | Page 7

LANCE SELFA explains that there is less to Obama's latest campaign rhetoric than meets the eye.

AS THE Democratic primaries draw near, several opinion polls indicate that the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is tightening. No longer does Clinton appear to be a shoo-in for the nomination--at least to judge from recent polls in the early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

If Obama is really closing in, it may owe to the fact that he's successfully leveraging his appeal as a candidate of a "new generation," who wants to put the previous generation's politics behind us.

A recent Atlantic cover story by recovering conservative Andrew Sullivan, titled "Goodbye to All That," boils down this generation-is-destiny argument.

The problem today, Sullivan says, is that politicians continue to fight battles from the 1960s. A race between Clinton and, say, Giuliani, would be cut from this mold--in order to move U.S. politics forward, Obama may be the answer.

At a time when America's estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind's spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.

We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama."

For his part, Obama plays this generational theme for all its worth. It's in his standard repertoire for a stump speech.

And there is a superficial appeal to it. As a biracial child of an immigrant, Obama's profile is in tune with the increasingly multicultural environment that the youngest voters--those aged 18 to 30--have experienced during their lives. Polls confirm that Obama's support is strongest among these young voters, while Clinton's is strongest among the oldest voters.

As a rhetorical appeal for something new and different, playing the "generational" card has been part of presidential politics for a long time. John F. Kennedy used it to draw a contrast between himself and the grandfatherly Eisenhower, whose vice president, Richard Nixon, was his Republican opponent.

And we shouldn't forget that Bill Clinton--the first "Baby Boomer" president--used the same tricks against the last Second World War-generation president, George H.W. Bush.

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BUT DOES Obama's generational politics represent the kind of change that Sullivan hopes? Besides being a clever marketing slogan, what does "transcending the Baby Boom generation's conflicts" really mean?

When you try to answer these questions--either by looking at Obama's positions, or those of his media fan club--there is, along with much else about Obama, less there than appears on the surface.

To Sullivan, Obama's strength lies in his post-Baby Boomer ability to: 1) present a radically different image of America abroad; 2) speak forthrightly about domestic politics; and 3) bridge the religious divide that Republicans have exploited for years. The substance is pretty, though.

The idea of rebuilding American credibility abroad is central to every Democrat's campaign. Could an Obama who threatens to invade Pakistan and refuses to pledge a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq until 2013 have any advantage?

Obama's "forthrightness" about domestic policy has also included, recently, touting the scare tactic of a "Social Security crisis"--to reopen an elite-driven debate about "fixing" the program, which, in reality, will damage it for ordinary people.

Perhaps that's why the one-time right-wing pundit Sullivan likes Obama's forthrightness: "He is among the first Democrats in a generation not to be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe, which also gives them more freedom to move pragmatically to the right, if necessary."

Finally, the whole notion that Obama will provide Democrats with a way to appeal to religious voters is a reprise of one of the most tired bits of advice pundits have offered Democrats since the 1970s.

The generational theme dovetails with the rest of Obama's campaign persona. Marc Ambinder--author of a far more useful and interesting look at the Obama-Clinton battle, "Teacher and Apprentice," which appeared in the same issue of Atlantic as Sullivan's puff piece--calls it a "process" candidacy.

Ambinder compares Obama's campaign to those of former Democratic primary candidates like Gary Hart or Bill Bradley, who appealed to voters not on ideological or programmatic grounds, but by criticizing the political "process." These candidates pledge to run a campaign that breaks with "politics as usual" and "levels with the American people."

One key reason why Obama has chosen to present himself this way is that his political and policy differences with Clinton, John Edwards and the rest of the Democratic field (perhaps with the exception of Dennis Kucinich) are not that significant. In some important ways, he stands to the right of Clinton and Edwards.

For instance, his health care plan lies fully within the emerging insurance company consensus on "acceptable" health care reform--and it actually proposes to cover fewer people than either Clinton's or Edwards'.

"The major problem with a process-oriented campaign," Ambinder writes, "is that it tends to appeal to elites, who vote aspirationally, rather than to the much broader pool of primary voters, who tend to focus on tangibles, such as health-care benefits and tax credits."

Unlike earlier "process" candidates such as Bradley and Hart, Obama is well-funded and backed by a significant section of the Democratic establishment. That means he has the money and support to be competitive--so he's not relying on an appeal to "idealism" to win.

But in the end, as the come-from-behind victory of John Kerry over Howard Dean in the 2004 Iowa caucuses showed, the ultimate trump card isn't "changing politics as usual," but who can beat the Republicans in November. Increasingly, this is how Clinton is marketing herself.

If Clinton succeeds in posing as the most "electable" candidate in November, don't be surprised to see the Obama boomlet deflate.

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