People all over the world - and certainly no less progressive Americans - are trying to take the measure of Barack Obama. The previous and coming few weeks will be a good, though not perfect, moment for doing so.
I have long believed that the winner of the Democratic nomination in 2008 would be the winner of the presidency. With Newsweek now reporting a 15-point polling spread between Obama and McCain, that is looking more and more true. Moreover, my guess is that this year, like most, the Electoral College math will magnify that gap even further.
I have contended for some time that Democrats are going to have a giant year (or, more precisely, Republicans are going to be fiercely spanked), all down the ballot, ranging from dogcatchers up to senators and governors. I expected that the presidential race might be a bit closer than those others, but even that may not be true.
Of course, everything can change in a day, let alone four months. Just ask Mike Dukakis, who entered his year’s summer with about a 17-point advantage over George Bush the Elder, and proceeded to get stomped. Dukakis was one of the earliest swiftboat victims, back before there even were swiftboater political assassins, per se, and of course the Atwater/Rove machine destroyed him mercilessly. He never seemed to know what hit him, and he certainly never fought back.
Neither condition seems likely to apply to Obama, however - particularly the latter. That great hissing sound you’ve been hearing for some time now is the energy going out of the regressive right movement, including the funding and support from the hired guns. Not only do these people see the freight train headed their way, but they can’t even get remotely excited about their standard-bearer, John McCain. If your politics suck in America, it’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning.
Moreover, there hasn’t been a Democrat like Barack Obama in the 30 years since the Faux Cowboy rode into town and sent them all scurrying for cover. Whatever else one can say about Obama, he doesn’t stand around like Dukakis or Kerry getting punch drunk, watching his prospects go down the drain as scumbags relentlessly punk him with the crassest of tactics. Obama may yet lose this election, but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll do so while being a hapless observer of his own demise. For the pathetic creature known as the Democratic Party, that alone is actually a giant leap of progress.
Given that the presidency is within his reach, the question of who he really is now comes into sharper relief. As I see it, there are basically two options to choose from, with a host of permutations and degrees of variation between and around them.
President Obama can either be an FDR, or he can be a Bill Clinton. He can either be a bold leader who leverages crisis and a sweeping electoral mandate into transformational policy and historical leadership, or he can be a caretaker who cravenly seeks to make no mistakes and therefore realises no accomplishments. He can be a progressive who comes to the rescue of a country badly in need, or he can be Republican-Lite, putting corporate interests ahead of the nation’s.
Many people are wondering which model we’ll get with Obama. Some don’t really care, as long as he is simply “President Not Bush”. Others have simply gone ahead and made the leap, assured that he is the Second Coming. As he once said, himself, for some reason people seem to project all their hopes and aspirations on this man.
But which is he? My guess, sadly, is that his instincts are more Clinton than FDR, at least when it comes to the cautious inaction aspect. That I can (barely) bear; the corporate shilling I cannot.
It’s very much worth remembering, however, that both FDR and Clinton were presidents of their time. Without serious crises, FDR would likely have been Clintonesque. Meanwhile, with them, Clinton could have arguably risen into the pantheon of great presidents. Indeed, he supposedly once lamented that he got through eight years without such a crisis on his watch, a comment which for me always summed up the priorities of Clintonism better than any other single notion.
Quick pop-quiz question: What kind of person is so incredibly self-absorbed that they would wish a deadly national crisis on their own country because of the positive effect it might have on their personal legacy? Answer: A Clinton.