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Obama Rising

The charismatic freshman senator may just be the Democrat who can beat Hillary -- and make liberalism a winning philosophy again. Our summer issue's cover story. (For additional perspective, click here.)

By 8.14.07

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This article is taken from the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

ON A CHILLY AFTERNOON in mid-May, with the overcast skies opening up, a crowd huddles outside the doorway of the Rye Elementary School in this New Hampshire seacoast town, waiting for Secret Service officers to complete their sweep of the building. The lucky ones get cozy beneath the entrance's overhang, while the less fortunate depend on umbrellas and ponchos to protect themselves from the elements. Some have shown up to see the political world's new celebrity out of sheer curiosity, while others are already smitten. A salesman sees an opportunity to make a quick buck. He paces back and forth holding a sheet of cardboard displaying rows of buttons, most of them the typical offerings you'd expect to see at a gathering of Democrats. One portrays Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld as the Three Stooges, and one reads: "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Republican. "But another button more appropriately conveys the mood of the moment. It's a photo of the candidate, smiling and waving, with a rising sun behind him, surrounded by the words: "Carpe Diem Barack Obama November 4, 2008."

Many conservatives have a difficult time believing that at a critical time in the nation's history, in the midst of the War on Terror, the country would choose a novice like Barack Obama to serve as their commander in chief. For years, the right has been gearing up for another epic confrontation with the Clinton machine, and it's hard to imagine Hillary would allow a political neophyte to squash her White House ambitions.

But at a moment in history when Americans are war-weary and eager for change, the optimistic, fresh-faced Obama should at the very least be considered a formidable candidate. To those who care about limiting the size and scope of government, the threat of Obama goes deeper than his potential to capture the presidency. In the Illinois senator, Democrats may have finally found a political figure capable not only of winning an election, but of advancing liberalism.

Skeptical conservatives would be wise to heed the words of Kirk Dillard, the Republican minority whip of the Illinois state senate, who worked with Obama for eight years in the legislature. "Obama can be to liberalism what Ronald Reagan was to conservatism, and that's a friendly face or likable personality that can move the country left," Dillard told me.

IT IS VERY EASY to dismiss Obama as shallow at first glance, but his writings, speeches, and campaign appearances paint a portrait of a politician who has immense talents and understandable appeal.

The first time I saw Barack Obama speak in person was at a small reception following this year's gala dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual convention in Washington, D.C. With a photo having surfaced on the Internet of Obama at a 1998 Arab community dinner in Chicago, chatting with leading anti-Israel intellectual Edward Said, many supporters of Israel questioned Obama's true sympathies. Their concerns would not be assuaged.

"The biggest enemy we have in this whole process," Obama reflected as he was wrapping up his speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, interrupting himself to acknowledge the presence of young people in the audience. He continued: "One of the enemies we're going to have to fight, is not just terrorists, it's not just Hezbollah, it's not just Hamas, it's also cynicism."

My immediate reaction was best summed up by a man I overheard remark to his friend, "I don't know about you, but I think the enemies are Hamas and Hezbollah!"

Obama displayed tremendous naivete by applying his feel-good liberalism, which may have had relevance when he was a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, to a complex and intractable conflict with deep historical, religious, ethical, and cultural roots.

Early in May, Obama stopped by an art space in an industrial part of Richmond for a low-dollar fundraiser hosted by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, entering the stage to the sounds of Aretha Franklin's "Think." As he does during his standard presidential stump speech, Obama recounted the first time he decided to run for office. He joked that people used to mispronounce his name by calling him "Alabama" or "Yo Mama. "Then he recalled that people would ask him why a nice guy would want to get mixed up in politics. This prompted a meditation on public cynicism.

The superficiality of these remarks were driven home when I went back and read William Finnegan's 2004 profile in the New Yorker, and stumbled on a description of a speech Obama delivered as a U.S. Senate candidate:

Obama began by saying, as he often does, that people were always getting his name wrong, calling him "Alabama" or "Yo Mama. "The crowd roared with laughter....

He went on, "People are always asking me, 'Why, with these fancy degrees and a professorship, would you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?' And my answer is, 'We've got too much cynicism in this country, and we're all in this together, and government expresses that.'"


So, whether he is running to be a U.S. senator or the leader of the free world, whether the question is ethics in government or education, health care or Hezbollah, his solution is replacing our "cynicism" with "hope" so that we can overcome any challenge by working together. It's enough to make somebody, well, cynical. But its appeal should not be underestimated. When Obama jokes about his name, the crowds still roar with laughter, and when he calls for replacing cynicism with hope, his flocks of supporters find it inspiring.

I JUST THINK HE'S AMAZING," said Beth Rennick of Richmond, who was first impressed with Obama when she saw him speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where she was a delegate. Asked what she found so appealing, she rattled off a long list. "His mind. His charisma. His personality. His background. His passion. His emotion. His oration. His audacity -- he likes that word."

Rennick is not alone. Obama is a bigger draw on the campaign trail than any candidate in either party. "Everywhere we go we have been attracting these enormous crowds," he likes to boast on the stump. "We had 20,000 people in Atlanta, 20,000 folks in Austin, Texas. Ten thousand people in Los Angeles. "In the first quarter, he blew away expectations by raising $23.5 million for the primary alone, beating out the vaunted political machine at the disposal of Hillary Clinton. He also had more than 100,000 donors, which was double the number reported by Hillary.

When Obama chats with people after campaign events, he looks at them intently, puts his arm around them, or even embraces them. "He's just too good to be true!" I heard one grown woman gush after meeting him following an event in New Hampshire, which was not an atypical reaction.

Ann Coulter has written that "only white guilt could explain the insanely hyperbolic descriptions of Obama's 'eloquence.' His speeches are a run-on string of embarrassing, sophomoric Hallmark bromides." This general sense has been echoed throughout conservative blogs.

As much as his calls for "a new kind of politics" in which Americans overcome cynicism and find common ground sound like the empty platitudes of a phony politician, there is reason to think that in Obama's case, he genuinely believes in bringing people together.

"I've worked with Senator Obama publicly, privately, and at 1 a.m. and six in the morning behind closed doors," said Dillard of their years together in the Illinois state senate. "He is a genuinely nice man who cares greatly about overcoming obstacles on a variety of fronts. It's not an act."

Dillard described how Obama became one of the guys by playing cards and pickup basketball games, bumming cigarettes, and going out for drinks.

"He instantly got in playing poker with some of the old bulls of the state senate who came from all different walks of life, many of whom were skeptical, I'm sure," he said. "When this University of Chicago professor and Harvard graduate walked in, their eyes rolled. But it didn't take long for Obama to prove to all of his colleagues that he's a pretty nice regular guy."

Though the two had many disagreements, and despite the fact that Dillard considers Obama a "socialist" on health care, they were able to work together on ethics reform and a law that required the videotaping of interrogations in capital cases, and they remain friends.

Obama has maintained a solidly liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate, but has still sought to work with his Republican colleagues in Washington when possible. His views could not be more different from those of the staunch conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, but the two worked together on earmark transparency legislation.

"If Barack disagrees with you or thinks you haven't done something appropriate he's the kind of guy who'll talk to you about it, "Coburn told New York magazine, "He'll come up and reconcile: 'I don't think you were truthful about my bill.'I've seen him do that. On the Senate floor."

Obama and Coburn have described each other as friends, and even their wives have hit it off. Despite their ideological incompatibility, Coburn sees Obama's potential.

"What Washington does is cause everybody to concentrate on where they disagree as opposed to where they agree," Coburn continued. "But leadership changes that. And Barack's got the capability, I believe-and the pizzazz and the charisma-to be a leader of America, not a leader of Democrats."

THOUGH OBAMA HAS BEEN A FIERCE CRITIC of the Iraq war, he hasn't resorted to the vitriol typical of some of his more seasoned Democratic colleagues. When President Bush announced his "surge" strategy in January, like other Democrats, Obama opposed it. But unlike others, he was sure to add: "I have no doubt that the President is sincere in believing that his strategy is the right one."

As has been widely explored, Obama had to navigate through many worlds and balance several cultures growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia as the offspring of a white woman from Kansas and black man from Kenya. As president of the Harvard Law Review and law professor at the University of Chicago, he went to great lengths to give both sides a fair hearing on controversial issues, according to the accounts of those who knew him at the time.

As Obama adjusts to being a candidate in a contentious Democratic primary dominated by a base that is restive and angry, his conciliatory impulses are being put to the ultimate test. "When George Bush steps down from office, the entire world will breathe a sigh of relief," he said in Rye, New Hampshire. At a rally in Manchester, he declared that the American people "are tired of a foreign policy that instead of being based on our ideals, on our values, is based only on bombast and bullying, and in some cases, lies. "The fact that he had to add the qualifier "in some cases" suggests he's still not entirely comfortable throwing red meat to partisan crowds.

IN HIS FIRST BOOK, Dreams of My Father, Obama recounts his only meeting with his dad. His father left Hawaii when the younger Barack was just two years old, and they didn't see each other until his father visited Hawaii in the early 1970s. Writing of the visit, Obama describes his father's "effect on other people, "recalling:

For whenever he spoke-his one leg draped over the other, his large hands outstretched to direct or deflect attention, his voice deep and sure, cajoling and laughing-I would see a sudden change take place in the family.... It was as if his presence had summoned the spirit of earlier times and allowed each of them to reprise his or her old role; as if Dr. King had never been shot, and the Kennedys continued to beckon the nation, and war and riot and famine were nothing more than temporary setbacks, and there was nothing to fear but fear itself.

It fascinated me, this strange power of his...


Watching Obama on the campaign trail made me wonder if he is channeling his father, because whenever he speaks, it's as if September 11 had never happened, as if there weren't terrorist groups throughout the world plotting to attack us, and the only thing we have to fear is "cynicism."

Obama has called for increasing the size of the military and moving against terrorist groups when the subject specifically comes up, or when he is addressing a more general audience, but when speaking to a partisan crowd, he strikes a different balance.

Before the Rye, New Hampshire town hall meeting I attended, a woman handed out cookies decorated with a pie chart representing the size of the Pentagon budget, suggesting that money wasted on outdated weapons could be diverted to health care and education. (She was with the group PrioritiesNH, which claims to be nonpartisan, but is run by liberal activist Ben Cohen, co-founder of ice cream company Ben and Jerry's.)

During the question and answer session, Obama was asked about withdrawing all of our troops based throughout the world. Responding, he held up the cookie and noted the disproportionate amount of money America spends on defense relative to the rest of the world. "We spend more money on defense than the next 30 nations combined, "he stressed. "Combined." Obama acknowledged that "we have very real enemies out there, "but argued that we could be spending money more wisely, and lamented the cost of the Iraq war. Instead of proposing that money saved by pulling out from Iraq be spent to improve national security in other ways, he said we could use the money for early child education, or to expand access to health care. This was quite a different tone from the major foreign policy address he gave a few weeks earlier. In that speech (which got good reviews from neoconservative Robert Kagan), he called for adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.

ANOTHER QUESTIONER WANTED TO KNOW what could be done to increase humanitarian assistance to the rest of the world. "How do we see a Department of Peace be a bigger item than a Department of Defense?" she asked.

In response, Obama reiterated his call for a "new security" that would involve the doubling of foreign aid. "We have come to view security only in terms of military spending, and military action," he complained. He said he has spoken to terrorism experts who have told him that there are only about 10,000 committed terrorists, and the rest are people facing hardship, or being educated in madrassas that teach hate. "That environment allows the hardcore terrorists to recruit," Obama said.

It isn't "naive" or "soft" to argue that humanitarian assistance could be used to reduce terrorism, he said, but simply a matter of making a smart investment. "If you spend the money up front, you don't end up having to spend as much money on the back end on much more costly military interventions," he said.

Obama provided the example of the Marshall Plan as an instance of foreign aid contributing to our long-term security. There is an obvious problem with that analogy. Before instituting the Marshall Plan, we first had to defeat the Nazis. We didn't attempt to deliver humanitarian assistance to Europe or try to re-educate Germans while Hitler was still in power. The prime breeding grounds for terrorists are in nations ruled by corrupt totalitarian governments hostile to the United States. As long as those governments are still in place, it is unlikely that they will take too kindly to American efforts to feed and re-educate their people.

Obama does not even bother to pay lip service to going after terrorist groups in his standard stump speech, which indicates where his heart really lies. In outlining his top priorities, he talks about pulling out of Iraq, fighting global warming, achieving energy independence, creating universal health care, and improving education. He sounds quite genuine in his concern about all of those issues, but fighting terrorism does not make the cut.

The core of Obama's message in his run for president may be captured in a refrain he uses in his speeches, that "it's time to turn the page." More than anything, Obama's candidacy taps into a desire among a certain portion of the electorate to move beyond September 11, to return to a time when terrorism may have been a part of political life, but far from the central focus. It is only human nature that the more time that elapses after a traumatic event, the less it stings, and the more people desire to return to normalcy. As we move farther away from September 11 without another terrorist attack, it is only natural that this tendency will manifest itself and people will want to "turn the page."

That is why, though it is just a silly button slogan, the phrase "Carpe Diem" may be the best way to describe the rationale behind Obama's candidacy. Before he announced his intention to run, many pundits argued that the 45-year-old with less than three years in the U.S. Senate should wait until he gets more experience. Some still consider his campaign a dry run, or a bid for the vice-presidential nomination. But clearly, he intends to capitalize on this particular moment in American history. He is, in fact, seizing the day.

TO SEIZE THE DAY, HOWEVER, he'll have to get past Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and she will not go quietly. Over the course of the campaign, it is likely that everything about Obama will come out in the worst possible light, from his admission of past cocaine use to his controversial land purchase from indicted businessman and fundraiser, Tony Rezko. Clinton still has the support of many in the party establishment, and benefits from Bill's popularity among black voters. Rep. Charles Rangel has already endorsed her over Obama.

Hillary will also do her best to portray herself as battle hardened. In campaign appearances, she recalls the 1993 fight over her healthcare plan, joking, "I still have the scars to prove it." And in February, she said of Republicans, "I'm the one person they are most afraid of. Bill and I have beaten them before, and we will again."

But considering that Democrats vehemently oppose the war, want change, and are sick of divisiveness, it would actually be odd for them to choose somebody who voted for the war, who is the most polarizing figure in politics, and who has already occupied the White House for eight years, over a fresh face who opposed the war all along.

Hillary has dispatched Bill to make the case that the media has exaggerated the differences between her and Obama on Iraq, arguing that since Obama joined the U.S. Senate, their voting records are practically identical. But the bottom line is that she voted to authorize the war (for which she still hasn't apologized) and in 2002 Obama called it a "dumb war."

Another problem Hillary faces is that to the extent she tries to use her years as first lady to emphasize her experience, and to deploy Bill, it reinforces Obama's narrative that he's the candidate who most represents change. It is interesting to speak to Obama boosters about why they prefer him to Hillary.

"You know, my feeling is the country is too big to go from Bush to Clinton, from Bush to Clinton," Robert Gomperts of Richmond told me before Obama took the stage there. "Enough already. That would be 28 years of two families. We don't have dynasties here. I think [Hillary Clinton's] general inclinations are right, but she's too calculating for my taste. I think everything she does is calculated by what kind of effect it will have, and we've had a lot of that. So I'm looking for something new."

Brenda MacLellan, an eighth grade teacher from Londonderry, New Hampshire, said she was turned off by Clinton after meeting her at a February town hall meeting in Concord. A one-time John Kerry delegate, she is now actively supporting Obama, along with her husband.

"Here I am a woman, who wouldn't mind a woman president, a lot of my friends are going to vote for her because of Bill, so I was really torn," MacLellan told me after the Rye town hall meeting. "But when I think of Barack, and where he stood on civil rights, and thinking about the real people, that's what we need again. We don't need a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynasty."

One can see a scenario in which this desire for change expresses itself not only in the primary, but the general election itself. Historically, when Americans are unhappy with the way things are, they elect presidents to repair flaws they see in the current administration. Jimmy Carter seemed like an honest guy to help us recover from Watergate, Ronald Reagan was the ideal choice for us to recover from the malaise of the Carter years, and Bill Clinton felt our pain at a time when the elder President Bush was seen as out of touch. With many Americans tired of hearing about war and terrorism, and fed up with the divisiveness of the Bush years, there is a certain demand for a healer, and the Oprah-approved Obama is well suited for such a role.

BEYOND HIS POTENTIAL TO WIN THE PRESIDENCY, there is the danger that Obama will be able to use his charisma to implement liberal policies once elected. For all of Bill Clinton's electoral successes and political talents, he never attempted to make a philosophical case for liberalism. Bill cared more about winning people's love than fighting ideological battles, and was perfectly content to abandon universal health care for welfare reform if it meant maintaining power. His declaration that "the era of big government is over" was an acknowledgment that he still was operating inside the box that Reagan had created. Furthermore, his messy personal life and scandal-plagued administration distracted from any legislative agenda.

Conservatives have long contemplated the nightmare of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but even if she were to make it to the White House, there would be a limit to how much she could accomplish. If she were to win, it would have to be by promising to govern as a moderate, so any attempt to drastically augment the size of the welfare state would make it very easy for conservatives to rally opposition to her liberal agenda. It is unlikely that her shrill voice, calculating nature, and disagreeable personality would win over any converts to her cause and thus she would have a difficult time realizing her policy ambitions.

Obama's voting record makes him one of the most liberal members of the Senate (to the left of Clinton, Russ Feingold, and even John Kerry, according the National Journal's most recent ratings). But Obama comes across as more likable, and he crafts his rhetoric carefully to make his ideas sound more moderate than they actually are. Unlike Bill Clinton, who also had a certain charisma, Obama has a strong family life and at this point it seems unlikely that there are any Paula Joneses or Monica Lewinskys in his closet to distract from his legislative ambitions. Also, Clinton faced a hostile Congress for the last six years of his presidency, but if Obama won, he would likely have the benefit of a Democratic-controlled legislative branch. (It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Obama would win the presidency in 2008, while Republicans regain control of Congress.)

A quarter century ago, Ronald Reagan not only won the presidency, he won the argument, selling a generation of Americans on the virtues of individualism and limited government. Just as Reagan's sunny optimism portrayed conservatism in its most positive light, Obama puts a happy face on liberalism.

"[He has] perfect pitch, I think, for the mood of the country, which is a flinch from the rhetorical vitriol for the mood that is consuming this town, "George Will said of Obama on ABC's This Week. "He's a little like Ronald Reagan in this regard: Reagan used to drive people crazy, in the Democratic Party, because they'd say the public doesn't agree with him on this or this or this or this, and they vote for him. They voted for him because they said we like him, he's not off putting, he's not frightening. And I think this is another 1980."

In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that while he disagreed with Reagan's policies he "understood his appeal." He continues:

Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional values of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism, and faith.

That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters a sense that it was fighting for them.


Politicians who advocate progressive policies by resorting to populism have had a tendency to come across as divisive and anti-business, and they have suffered at the ballot box as a result. Think of Al Gore's "people versus the powerful "refrain or John Edwards's "two Americas. "By contrast, in his highly touted speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama's liberalism was inclusive, rooted in the American tradition, and exemplified by his life story.

He spoke of America as a "magical place" and said "in no other country on earth, is my story even possible." In a not too subtle rejoinder to Reagan, he ruminated that "people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all."

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama expands on his vision. He buys into the narrative that Franklin D. Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself, and while acknowledging the importance of free markets, he argues that government has a role in addressing income inequality, improving education, and universalizing health care. Such goals would not hinder economic growth, he argues, but position us better to compete in a global economy. He deemphasizes race-specific policies, arguing that most of the problems minority groups face are ones confronted by most Americans.

Obama also perceptively argues against liberals' attempts to secularize society, realizing that appealing to faith is actually an effective way to advance progressive ideas. "Scrub language of all religious content, and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice."

At the philosophical level, Obama attempts to reconcile the conflict between individualism and collectivism that is at the root of the debate over the role of government by arguing that "our individualism has always been bound by a set of communal values, the glue upon which every healthy society depends."

In a sense, President Bush has already paved the road for a figure with Obama's skills to reassert liberalism. Under Bush, the size of government has increased at a faster rate than during any administration since Lyndon Johnson's, and it has given us the monstrosities of the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. Rhetorically, Bush gave away the store by touting "compassionate conservatism "and notoriously uttering, "When somebody hurts, government has got to move." Considering that this all came from somebody identified as a conservative president, Republicans are left with little leverage to argue against Obama's "slight change in priorities."

IN THE 2004 NEW YORKER PIECE, Dan Shoman, Obama's political director at the time, spoke about people "drinking the juice. "Once volunteers "start drinking the Obama juice, "Shoman said, "you can't find enough for them to do."

That was apparent on a rainy Saturday morning in Manchester, New Hampshire, where about 550 supporters gathered to hear Obama speak before departing for a door-to-door canvassing effort to ask New Hampshire residents to urge the state's Republican senators, Judd Gregg and John Sununu, to change their votes on the Iraq war. Obama has pointed out in recent campaign appearances that, "we are just 16 votes short from bringing this war to a close." The effort served a dual purpose, as volunteers were also instructed to ask voters which candidates they were leaning toward and what issues were most important to them. Considering it is only May, the turnout was impressive.

"We see him as a bridge to a better vision for the country," said Kate Singletary, who took a bus in from Cape Cod with about 30 others, including 18 high school students. "Those young people, and their passion for this guy, was really inspiring this morning. They were talking about their need to make a difference, and this is the only guy in a very long time that has sparked their interest."

None of this is to suggest that conservatives should simply roll over and wait to be devoured by the Obamasaurus Rex. There is still a long way between now and the election. The critics may be right, and he may just be a flash in the pan, too green to survive in a long campaign. Though Americans are unhappy with the Iraq war, it doesn't mean they are ready to abandon the fight against terrorism. And the American people still value individualism, and remain deeply suspicious about government interference in their lives. However, to counteract Obama, conservatives will have to start by seeing him as a legitimate threat.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein