Sunday, September 19, 2010

The audacity of Hope - Obama as it unfolds

During my stay in US in 2006-07 when I was on an year’s sabbatical, I got increasingly interested in the US politics especially the oscillating vicissitudes of people’s reaction towards anything remotely connected with Bush & his administration! I especially recall a bumper sticker on one of the cars as I was driving once in New Jersey turnpike which was “don’t blame me, I voted for Kerry”. I have closely followed the progress in Primary elections since then. And the Democrats race, contrary to what most of felt initially, is turning out to be a cliff hanger with Obama gaining strength with each passing day. Obama, a ‘young’ politician, comes across dignified and carries himself with a silent understated confidence. I found him an enigma and have been trying to read more of him. My thoughts in this article are based on numerous debates and coverage on CNN and articles in New York Times especially during the last fortnight. I also happen to go through “The Audacity of Hope’ by Barrack Obama and will present his views based on his autobiographical thoughts.

Hillary- when nothing seems to be going right!

Hillary started her journey to White House very confident, promising a cakewalk to the nomination. ‘It will be me’- She had told in November 07 (Frank Rich, NYT, Feb 24, 08) and the race would ‘be over by Feb 5’, the super Tuesday. One wonders what exactly went wrong.
She, I feel, is a victim of blitzkrieg campaign of Obama’s. She is so overwhelmed by this ambush, a highly organized campaign of Obama’s, a campaign which is based on facts and genuine hopes and which is surprisingly appealing to people cutting across race, region or income. And this is where he seems to be scoring suddenly. She is simply not as good as an opponent whose effectiveness she never anticipated. Hillary is being outlasted everywhere off late. She admitted recently that she “had no idea” that Texas primary system was “so bizarre”.
When Obama outwitted her on Super Tuesday, she had no contingency plan. Hillary had neither the boots on ground nor the money to recoup. In her anxiety not to be left behind Obama on issues, she also started vigorously on the ‘need for change’. She was insultingly silenced when one of the viewers during CNN debate (Feb 1, 2008) wondered what change is she referring to when for the last 20 years ever since the caller was voting, the contesting candidate is either a ‘Bush’ or a ‘Clinton’!
Hillary has also been harping on ‘the experience gap’ (between her & Obama) & ‘experience factor’ as her strength to legitimately claim the Presidency- the experience of eight years as the First Lady, experience in universal health insurance during Bill’s regime (which never really took off), experience of Irish peace process, experience of sitting along with the President in all important discussions with head of nations and the list goes on. But then, is this really an experience and does it matter? Did Bill have this same experience when he first occupied the office in 1992? And going by this logic, the spouse of Presidents only would be eligible to contest the Presidential elections! If at all, Hillary leads Obama by couple of years as a senator. Obama seems to have one of the best learning curves in political history and its showing.
If Hillary is stumbling, it’s because there just isn’t any good path to take. After struggling for months to dent Obama’s campaign, Clinton’s side now is unleashing a ‘kitchen sink’ fusillade against Obama (Patrick Healy & Julie Bosman, NYT, Feb 26, 08). However, losses in 11 states in a row is clearly reflected in her vacillating style going from ‘shame on you Obama’ to be ‘honoured’ to be on the same stage with him. Gail Collins (Hillary, Buckeye Girl- NY Times, Feb. 28) calls Hillary as one of the great anti-glamour stories in modern history. The first women ever to be a serious presidential contender, the face that launched a thousand books, a former first lady, US senator and survivor of the most famous sex scandal of the century and yet, she has managed to become the ‘boring’ candidate of this primary. Her body language especially during debates is changing from a mix of warm smile and sharp attacks to being stern and tense and speaking in almost fatigued monotone. In many ways, Obama is the foil to her tight and grim demeanour during the same debate. As Obama thinks his wife would comment about him that he is not the one to get worked up easily. Obama seems to have suddenly evolved. He is calm and witty at crucial junctures, always to the point and never obsessing on the small stuff.
All this is surely making Hillary jittery and anxious and the fall out has been a no hold bar negative campaign against Obama off late, whether its Obama trying to mislead people on Hillary’s health plan or the mysterious appearance of Obama’s picture in a traditional dress. To aggravate matters is her chief strategist, Mark Penn, who like Rumsfield, is bigger on loyalty and arrogance than strategic brilliance. After the Potomac primary washout, Mr Penn declared that Obama hadn’t won in “any of the significant states” outside his home state of Illinois. A blogger Markos Zuniga labelled Penn spin the “insult 40 states” strategy. The insult continued when one of Hillary’s supporters derided Obama’s supporters as “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies”. (Frank Rich, NYT, Feb 24). Less than 24 hours later, Obama received the endorsement from latte-drinking teamsters in Wisconsin. One thing which stands out is the hatred people in US seem to have developed towards negative campaign. While people might not understand the contrasting views on Medicare or Middle East diplomacy, they realise the violation of value- civil behaviour- that they consider important. And Hillary seems to be paying the price. Frank Rich (NY Times, Feb 24, 2008) calls it as her audacity of hopelessness!

Obama- is he the change Americans seek and waiting for?

What’s favouring Obama over Hillary is that he is much stronger than the Clinton team expected and the urge for change in leadership is much stronger than was expected (‘people are hungry for change’) (Adam Nagourney, NY times, Feb 25, 2008).
As a child of a black man and a white woman, Obama is a product of Kansas, Hawai & Kenya, of Christians & Muslims, of a single mom on food stamps and Harvard Law School. Obama thus is of the opinion that he never had the option of restricting his loyalties based on race. Infact, Obama, in his book, rejected the notion that the administration acted slowly because Katrina’s victims were black and says that ‘incompetence was colour blind’.
At times his fiery speeches are interpreted as “post racial politics” implying that US is already a color blind society. However, Obama has a word of caution. There continue to be widespread disparities on almost all socio economic indicators based on race and to suggest that the racial attitudes play no part in these disparities is to turn a blind eye to the history and experience. Obama was subjected to litany of petty racial slights on numerous occasions. To understand race, Obama says that US needs to be seen like a split screen- the kind of America that Americans want while looking squarely at America as it is.
The voting pattern in terms of race has been skewed in previous elections and the percentage of African Americans voting has been less than 15% (of African American of registered voters which itself is abysmally low, as against atleast 50% among whites) in most of the states. And it can’t just be a coincidence in so many states and one gets a feeling that they have been deliberately left out. With all the great talks of racial equality, the fact remains that African Americans are a neglected lot. A look at socio-economic indicators in the Harlem district, a predominantly black dominated ghetto in the heart of New York City points this out. The life expectancy of African American male in Harlem at 48 years is less than most of the developing countries! Its time, I feel very strongly, that African Americans in US get a voice in decision making and someone at the top who has the courage and determination to look into the entire issue of racial disparities honestly and initiate measures to minimize the miseries. An analysis of racial pattern of voting in the States already went in for poll suggests an impressive jump in the percentage of African Americans votes with almost 80% of them voting for Obama. He thus has an advantage of race somewhere! Irrespective of whom they actually voted, the fact that most of them have voted or are going to vote for the first time in their life is an important landmark in itself. And this is the change Obama perhaps is talking about. The confidence that their vote matters, that they can vote, that they have a candidate in whom they see a ray of hope is something that sets apart this primary for Democrats from all the previous elections. However, a welcome feature for Obama is that it’s not just the Blacks who are voting for him. The supporters profile is increasingly becoming ‘colour blind’ and the recent survey in Texas and Ohio does indicate an increasing percentage among the white women and Hispanics also moving towards Obama. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Obama since the types of voters who ultimately gravitated to his campaign during senate’s election also defied the conventional wisdom.
Blacks, all over the world are sitting up and taking notes of Obama. As KA Dilday notes from London (‘Go back to black’ – NY Times dated Feb 27, 2008), black people all over the world feel a sense of pride in Obama’s accomplishment. Dilday in fact wonders that tracing relatives to particular former colonies ( black to ‘African Americans’) can be cliquish and finds it hard to understand why black Americans ever tried to use the term African American to exclude people. And says that its time to retire the term ‘African American’ and go back to blacks! Irrespective of what ultimately happens in Democrats and who ultimately becomes the President, this awakening and a sense of pride among Blacks and African Americans is something to be cherished and may be one of the most important turning point in America’s political history. Obama believes in Dr King’s promise that we be judged not by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character.

John Kennedy to whom Obama is sometimes compared challenged the American people to Acts of citizenship and patriotism. Obama’s rhetorical skills makes something on the same lines- ‘we are the change that we seek’ and ‘we are the ones we had been waiting for’. He has been accused of plagiarism ( the ‘fear’ phrase he used quoting Massachusetts Senator) by the Hillary camp and it somehow boomeranged yet again on her as a negative campaign and Obama seemed to emerge out winner yet again.
Obama gives a detailed and vivid description of his days in Illinois congress and the road to his election as Senator in his book. Obama notices people’s cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of public life, nourished by a generation of broken promises. He says that there are no blinding insights with interaction with people. What struck Obama was just how modest people’s expectations are and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, religion, region or class.
As he was coming to Washington after he became senator in 2005, people back home in Illinois would say ‘please stay who you are’ & ‘please don’t disappoint us’. And he has firmly held his ground amidst his people, people who had faith in him. To be a senator, he recalls requires ambition- a certain megalomania, fanatical single-mindedness (which his wife noticed and said that ‘it wasn’t just normal’) and an emotion called fear- not just the fear of loosing but fear of total, complete humiliation. In the process, Obama learned the cardinal rules of modern politics: Do the poll before you announce. He seems to have done his poll extremely well for the primaries and is still evolving. He is one candidate who I think continues to surprise himself with his dream run so far.
Obama, during Senator’s campaigning also realised that it’s not just fund-raising that puts a candidate on top. He believes that organized people can be just as important especially in low turnout primaries. ‘Organised’ for Democrats means the unions, the environmental groups, and the prochoice groups. For republicans, it means the religious right, local chamber of commerce and the antitax organizations. And a major factor for Obama over Hillary is how effectively he has been able to use the organized Democrat groups. His internal organization too seems to be firmly on ground and doing work silently. Hillary’s efforts are falling awfully short of expectations and requirements and she thus is seriously lagging.
In addition to being captive by their big-money contributors or succumbing to interest group pressures, there is another force- the third force that shapes the campaign and defines what he feels he can do or can’t do and that’s media. Obama feels he is lucky to be a beneficiary of unusually & at times undeservedly positive press coverage. Some of it had to do with his status as an underdog, his ‘novelty’ as a black candidate with an ‘exotic background’ and in his words, his style of communicating which can be rambling, hesitant and overly verbose and which perhaps finds sympathy in literary class. This was the case during his campaign in Illinois during senator’s election and seems to be the case now in all the states as he continues to mesmerize people. Clinton’s fans see her routing in Potomac states as an unfair undoing by a lightweight showboat who got a free ride from an often misogynist press and from naïve young people who lap up messianic language as if it were Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid (Frank Rich, NYT, Feb 24, 08). It’s ultimately Clinton’s strategists and not Obama voters who drank the Kool-Aid. Hillary has been crying foul on the role of media. But if the press were as prejudiced as Clinton campaign constantly whines, it would have surely pushed on Clinton’s tax returns and the full list of Clinton foundation donors to be made public – with the same vigour it devoted to Obama’s ‘plagiarism’!
Obama recalls at least one positive stroke from President Bush and that was soon after becoming a senator he met the President Bush and the first lady Laura in White House. Bush told Obama that he has got “a bright future, very bright”. Bush also warned that when one gets a lot of attention, people start gunning for him. And it’s not necessarily from one’s foes. Everybody will be waiting for him to slip and advised him to watch out. This is something Obama has understood over the years and is prepared for.
Obama has clung to the notion that politics could be different and that voters want something different, that they are tired of distortions, name-calling and sound-bite solutions to complicated problems. He believes that not only the country politics but the country’s policies could change for the better. Obama thinks that the American democracy has gone seriously awry. Privately those of us in government, Obama says, realise the gap between politics we have and the politics we need.
What’s next?
While the fight between Obama and Hillary continues, McCain has clearly emerged as an undisputed leader of the Republicans and seems to be edging over Democrats as of now unless a clear leadership emerges from Democrat’s and soon. The role of Super delegates (Superman) may be crucial especially if the verdict continues to be split after Tuesday’s poll in Texas and Ohio.
Despite being considered as a liberal by some of the more conservative Republicans (& that’s the reason Huccabee is still hanging around), McCain is well respected and has fought one battle after another against lobbyists and special interests. He is the only Republican to vote against the Telecommunications Act, has championed anti-smoking legislation, opposes ethanol subsidy as increased ethanol consumption increases greenhouse gas emissions and as a direct assault to lobbyist power McCain got McCain-Feingold ‘campaign finance reform’ Act passed.
Given McCain’s image and the fact that number of Democrat Whites (especially men) from South may, in the absence of John Edwards, vote for McCain in case it’s Obama for Democrats (or Hillary for that matter). The issue whether whites will vote an African American is a nagging one and only time will tell whether the election is colour blind.
And what does the battle which is becoming increasingly bitter and nasty between Obama and Hillary mean for an Indian? Obama did call Hillary as a ‘Democrat from Punjab’ (of course he called it as a Dumb slip of tongue later!) and people in India too align more with Hillary, based on her visit to India and her liking. But Obama is not a tried name in India and could be described at best as neutral as of now.
Things can look different and brighter for Hillary if she wins in Texas and Ohio but she needs a huge margin to tide over her present crises. The hope for her seems to be fading fast.

You do your best and if things don’t work out, it just wasn’t your time. Life isn’t always fair.

PS- I had penned it down when I was posted as Election Observer in Shillong in Jan-Feb 2008. A lot has changed since then. Obama is elected and rest is history.

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