To be young, gifted and vague
By Clive Crook
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 25 2007 17:33 | Last updated: April 25 2007 17:33
Barack Obama still has a good chance of not being elected president – so Hillary Clinton must be telling herself. His campaign is off to a stunning start, the press adores the man and the mere possibility of President Obama has made this one of the most exciting elections in living memory. The possibility of a woman president ought to be electrifying, but is tiring by comparison.
Still, as the senator from New York would tell you, it is early days. She and John Edwards are strong contenders for the Democratic party’s nomination – and Mrs Clinton, it is easy to forget, still leads that race. Between now and the primaries, Mr Obama will have plenty of opportunities to crash.
If that happens, though, it is unlikely to be for the reasons you may think. If he fails, it will not be because he is black and it will not be because he is vague about policy. Is this too obvious to need saying? Those are his strengths.
The country is asking itself: “Is America ready to elect a black president?” Not just ready to, I would answer, but yearning to. Of course, it is not a universal sentiment. There is bigotry in the US, as everywhere. But the moderate, swayable centre of the electorate – whose votes count double, because they could go either way – would be delighted to elect a black man. White liberals are ecstatic at the prospect. Is America ready for a president who might heal the country’s racial wounds? Ready for a leader capable of giving black youth a role model who is not a basketball player, a rapper or a drug-dealer? You bet it’s ready.
Mr Obama is very clever, immensely charming, a pretty good speaker and, incidentally, (although it counts for nothing in politics) an outstanding writer. If he were white, he would still be impressive. Because he is black, he is sensational. This is a black politician for all Americans – with none of the cadences or cartoon histrionics of a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton, none of the signals that say: “I speak only for black America.”
White America’s response to Mr Obama is so avid, in fact, that it offends some black voters. In Middle America’s delight, it is easy to see racist condescension: “Finally, a black man I can vote for.” Mr Obama himself is sensitive to the issue: it comes up in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. Black activist websites are debating whether he is really “black” and they are not joking. His mother was white, they complain, and he is not descended from slaves. According to the polls, black voters still prefer Mrs Clinton.
At least Mrs Clinton is not claiming to be black – although at this rate, do not rule it out for the whole campaign. But the point is that Mr Obama’s colour is a problem only for those in the black political community who resent the way whites have received him, and for white bigots. As far as the rest of the Democratic base and the broader electorate are concerned, Mr Obama is black and they love him for it.
That brings us to his second strength: his lack of policies. He is winning support from very different constituencies. Much of the Democratic base adores him. That is how he came to beat Mrs Clinton in primary-election fundraising last quarter (astonishing everybody, not least the Clinton campaign). He excites the base because, aside from being black, he is a liberal’s liberal. His voting record in the Senate places him close to Edward Kennedy, way to the left of the repositioned Mrs Clinton. It helps that, unlike her, he was against the Iraq war from the start.
Outside the Democratic party, on the other hand, he appeals because, apart from being black, he seems moderate, likeable and unthreatening. Race aside, the base likes him for his Howard Dean qualities; Middle America likes him because he is no Howard Dean, or so they imagine. The best way to undermine this alliance would be to offer a detailed manifesto. Better to stay in the realm of anaesthetic generalities.
Will he be able to? Possibly not. He is being pressed for details. There is something odd, it is true, about a candidate’s saying: “I don’t have any policies, but if you decide to elect me, I will get some.” Nonetheless, saying just that (maybe not in those words) is Mr Obama’s best bet.
It is a more feasible strategy than you may think. This is not Britain, where a prime minister can do much as he likes. American voters know that presidents have little power in domestic policy. Forget the “Bush tax cuts”: Congress calls the fiscal shots. When the Clintons were last in the White House, they developed a marvellously detailed and ambitious healthcare policy – and see what happened to that.
Mr Obama does not need detailed domestic policies to get elected. As president, he would need them even less. He must demonstrate good sense and calm judgment, a flair for leadership and moral purpose. Easy familiarity with the issues would be a bonus. Those are the makings of a president and he has them all. If he knows what he is doing, and he gives every sign that he does, he will leave the policy blueprints to Mrs Clinton and concentrate on what he does best: being liked. That way, his chances of not being elected will continue to shrink. He can decide what to do with the office when he has it.
Clive Crook’s column will appear every Thursday