Obama's the man

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National Post, Thursday, January 3, 2008

In the presidential election year that begins with today's Iowa caucuses, and moves to the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday, Barack Obama represents change in a country yearning for it, while Hillary Clinton represents continuity and brand recognition.

Obama is new and different, while Clinton is an all too familiar and polarizing figure. Obama also represents a changing of the generational guard, while Clinton holds a promise of back-to-the-future. John Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee and the third candidate in the first tier of Democratic hopefuls, represents the party's populist strain against the unnamed special interests in Washington.

The others are players to be named later, perhaps in the veep-stakes after the presidential nominations have been settled a month from now on Super Tuesday, with primaries in more than 20 states, including New York and California.

A plethora of polls in Iowa last week saw the top three Democratic candidates in a statistical dead heat, all somewhere in the mid-20s in voting intention. But then Tuesday's influential Des Moines Register poll, generally regarded as the most accurate barometer in the state, showed Obama breaking out to a 32%-25% lead over Clinton, with Edwards almost dead even with Clinton at 24%.

Respondents saw change as the most important factor in voting intention, and here Obama had a 33-26 lead over Clinton. He also had a 36-23 lead in the second most important category -- the ability to unify the country.

Clinton led only on the third most important attribute -- experience -- by a 35-21 margin. (Yet oddly, Obama has widened his lead in the week since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which brought foreign policy -- a domain in which he has no experience--into play.)

Obama has other significant advantages. He is the most powerful orator, and the most charismatic candidate, since Jack Kennedy in 1960. Obama also has a compelling storyline -- the absent African father from Kenya and the white mother from Kansas-- and a career path that runs from the Harvard Law Review to the practice of storefront law in Chicago, from the legislature in Illinois, to the Senate in Washington.

Even Obama's rhetoric echoes Kennedy. Where JFK pledged "to get this country moving again," Obama says "we have to have someone with a new vision for moving the country forward ? I'm ready to lead this country in a new direction."

The real question in this campaign is whether America is ready for a black president. Amid obvious fears for his safety, there is a view that only a tragedy can stop him.

In the front end-loaded American primary system, Iowa and New Hampshire will provide important answers. Both states, 95% white, are among the most unrepresentative in America. Yet in both states, Obama has surged to a lead over Clinton. In both states, the issue is change, after 20 years of Bushes and Cintons living in the White House and the prospect of another eight. Surely there must be more than two families in America.

If he wins today and carries New Hampshire next Tuesday, Obama will have all the momentum going into the next big test in South Carolina two weeks later.

In the meantime, Clinton is expected to win Michigan and Nevada quite handily. But South Carolina is the primary to watch. The state is to Obama as the West Virginia primary was to JFK in 1960. If a Catholic could carry a state that was 95% Protestant, then the religious issue would be buried, as it was. If an African American can win a southern state, then the issue of colour will be considered moot, and Obama's candidacy can then rise or fall on its own merits.

Hillary Clinton may be married to the man from Hope. But Obama represents a thing called hope.

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