The Obama phenomenon in perspective

February 15, 2008

BARACK OBAMA is edging ahead of the one-time "inevitable" Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton--on the strength of a campaign that has tapped into mass discontent with the status quo and the desire for a genuine and fundamental alternative.

In the caucuses and primaries after Super Tuesday, Obama went eight for eight, winning by a resounding margin in every case. Adding in the results before February 5 and the split decision on Super Tuesday itself, a majority of media estimates had Obama with a slight, though definite, lead in overall convention delegates.

More striking than details like the delegate count, however, is the intense excitement generated by Obama's campaign--most obviously among African Americans and young voters who are turning out for the primaries in record numbers, but now reaching across the different categories of the electorate.

If you look more closely at his actual positions and proposals, Obama is firmly within the moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party and largely indistinguishable from Clinton. But the resonance he has found for his calls for "change" has set him apart.

Increasingly, Obama's campaign has sought to portray itself as a movement, building from the grassroots.

As Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks pointed out, "Obama aired a 30-second Super Bowl ad that drew unabashedly on the iconography of the American left...[offering] images of rallies and protest marches, of poverty and environmental destruction, of the devastation of war and of beaming, hopeful, multiracial crowds...

"Whatever the causes, Americans seem eager to reclaim a spirit of idealism that many thought ended with the 1960s, to embrace a heritage that acknowledges conflict and struggle, but also hope and progress.

"Obama's Super Bowl ad represented a gamble: a bet that the symbolism of past social movements is now more likely to give Americans a thrill than a chill. And the matter-of-factness with which his ad was greeted--and Obama's electoral success so far--suggest that his campaign correctly read the national mood."

Brooks is right, and there's more to the point she makes. By pressing on the idea that ordinary people, rather than political leaders, have made the difference in history, the Obama campaign is legitimizing ideas of struggle and grassroots mobilization--something missing from U.S. politics for many decades.

Coming after the cynicism and demoralization bred by years of stagnating living standards for working-class people and the political dominance of the Republican right, this is a breath of fresh air.

Plus, there is the historic significance of Obama's campaign--that an African American could quite possibly become president of a country that was founded on slavery, and where an apartheid system reigned across the U.S. South a few generations ago.

At the same time, it is important to remember that Obama is not a radical. He is dressing his campaign with the trappings of social movements of the past, but his goal is not actually to build a new movement, but rather to win an election.

If he does get the nomination, Obama will be the representative of a political party that has always put the interests of the business and political elite first, before the demands of the majority in society--and his own record shows no sign that he would defy this history, whatever his rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Anyone committed to fighting for change today should see how Obama's campaign has raised hopes and expectations. People are becoming convinced of that most basic sentiment at the heart of all the great struggles of the past: that what we do matters--and that could mean more in the future than the candidate trying to employ this sentiment to gain votes.

But there is another lesson to be drawn from all the social struggles invoked by Obama's campaign--the civil rights movement, the fight for women's suffrage, the struggle for unions. Their strength rested on the willingness to remain independent and mobilize for justice, no matter what president was sitting in the White House.

SO WHAT happens now?

Clinton can't be counted out by any means. Still, her strategy seems increasingly desperate: hold on through Obama's victories in this month's primaries; hope that her current opinion-poll lead holds up in Ohio and Texas, the biggest states voting on March 4; and use a victory then to get party leaders to put pressure on Obama to accept Clinton as the winner and give up on the race.

But even if Clinton does win Ohio and Texas, it's likely that Obama will still be ahead in "pledged delegates"--that is, delegates to the August national convention awarded on the basis of the candidates' share of the vote in the actual primaries and caucuses.

At that point, Clinton's claim that she should be the nominee would rely on her edge among the "superdelegates"--the nearly 800 party leaders who have been given a vote at the convention based on their holding office now or in the past, or their position within the party apparatus.

Under this set-up, the convention vote of, for example, Georgia's U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a superdelegate who supports Clinton, will count for as much as a pledged delegate from Georgia won by Obama--each of which represents the preferences of more than 10,000 Georgia voters in the February 5 primary.

As Donna Brazile, the former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, put it, "One person, one vote? Forget about it. Some votes are worth more than others."

Still, pro-Clinton party leaders would have a hard time winning on this basis alone. For one thing, the legitimacy of the Democratic Party would be called into question. If party big-wigs were seen as ramming through the nomination, it would undermine the enthusiastic support during the primaries for both Obama and Clinton, perhaps to the extent of jeopardizing the more-than-likely Democratic victory in November.

Also, despite his rhetoric, Obama is far from a radical outsider in the Democratic Party. He has plenty of support among party leaders, including Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle--all superdelegates themselves. To some degree, Obama's campaign has become a rallying point for factions of the Democratic establishment that are tired of the Clintons and their supporters running the party apparatus for the last two decades.

The superdelegates are bound to no one, so if Obama continues to have the edge in upcoming primaries, the majority of superdelegates who have yet to declare themselves for either candidate could go to him, erasing Clinton's advantage--for that matter, the superdelegates currently pledged to Clinton could switch sides.

But there is a flip side to this: If Obama calculates that he can't overcome Clinton's superdelegate advantage, he is far more likely to give in and accept her nomination--perhaps in return for the vice presidential nomination or some other accommodation--than try to challenge the party rules by mobilizing pressure from his base.

The related question is how low the Clinton team could sink as the convention approaches. They've already used dirty tricks--like Bill Clinton's race-baiting before the South Carolina primary in an effort to marginalize Obama as "the Black candidate," or the string of supporters who found some reason to refer to the ancient history of Obama's drug use.

The Clintons aren't used to losing and won't concede defeat unless they think they've tried every avenue--whether it's the high road or the low.

DESPITE THEIR differing styles and rhetoric, Clinton and Obama are much closer to each other politically--and even to the Republicans they promise to oppose--than they are to the mass of people who are voting for them in the hopes that they will bring fundamental changes to Washington when they take over the White House.

But Election 2008 is important in a wider sense--it has provided further evidence of the mass popular rejection of George Bush and his Republican agenda, and it has raised the hopes of millions of people for something new.

Those hopes will be important in the struggles of the future--after the election and before it, too--to fight for a real alternative to a world of war, poverty and injustice.

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