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Can Obama Build a Movement?

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The early predictions about this presidential race were mostly wrong.

Republicans were supposed to return to a miniaturized version of Reaganism -- the narrow box of predictable, anti-government orthodoxy -- which would have turned out to be a political coffin. Instead, the two hottest Republican candidates are downright heterodox. Mike Huckabee pushes an unapologetic economic populism. And John McCain -- with his heretical stands on global warming and immigration -- also presents a conservative message that is reformulated, not just reconstituted.

Democrats were supposed to return to the good old days of Clintonism, with its war rooms, relentless partisanship and parsing denials. But Hillary's version seems less compelling than her husband's -- a Clintonism without charm. And despite his loss to Clinton in New Hampshire on Tuesday, this has allowed Sen. Barack Obama to turn a coronation into a real race.

As I saw while traveling with the Obama campaign in the Granite State, some of the senator's weaknesses are obvious. As a debater, he can be awkward and rambling. While he promises to get "beyond the partisan food fight," the policies featured in his campaign are conventionally liberal.

So far, he has not earned his reputation for post-partisanship by making creative, moderate proposals.

But among the snaking lines of supporters waiting in the cold for Obama events, there is, as he says, "something stirring in the air." One television reporter who covers the campaign told me of interviewing a New Hampshire woman with high regard for Clinton who was nonetheless supporting Obama. When asked why, she said, "Because on the day Obama becomes president, America would think differently about itself."

Obama and his staff clearly believe his candidacy has the potential to be a movement. During the last days of the Iowa campaign, one version of Obama's stump speech used the word "I" nearly 100 times -- typical for a candidate introducing himself to voters. But a few days before his Iowa win, Obama called his speechwriter in Des Moines to say his victory speech should be about "us."

"It was no longer just about asking for votes," Obama's bright young wordsmith, Jon Favreau, told me, "but about building a movement." Obama used the word "I" just 16 times in his memorable caucus night victory speech.

But what is the movement about? It is, above all, the return of idealism. Obama spent the last days before the New Hampshire primary defending "hope" against Clinton's contention that the Illinois senator was raising "false hopes." In the final debate, Obama also defended the use of inspiring words and rhetoric against Clinton's charge that words matter little in comparison to experience. It is a strange, shrunken presidential candidate who makes her final argument an assault on aspiration.

Obama is an impressive carrier of this message for a variety of reasons.

First, his personal style evokes the golden age of nonthreatening, high-minded liberalism from the early 1960s. His crowds may be young and denim-clad, but Obama has a JFK bearing -- conservative suits, fiddling with his starched cuffs, then a hand in his pocket. He dresses and speaks with a well-tailored formality -- his Iowa victory remarks were read from a teleprompter, the sign of well-crafted rhetorical ambition. His manner communicates that politics is a serious, adult business, which could eventually undermine Republican charges of ideological radicalism.

Second, however conventional his current ideological appeal, he has left room for future outreach to middle-ground voters. His stump speech, in the versions I heard, made no mention of abortion -- a typical (and divisive) Democratic applause line. His consistent emphasis on fighting HIV-AIDS globally and promoting development could appeal broadly to religious voters. And Obama does not make cynical use of his race.

Third, Obama's race matters greatly, because most of the American story -- from our flawed founding to the civil rights movement -- has been a struggle between the purity of our ideals and the corruption of our laws and souls. The day an African American stands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol -- built with the labor of slaves -- and takes the oath of office will be a moment of blinding, hopeful brightness.

Obama's performance in Iowa showed that this moment is a possibility. Clinton's stronger showing in New Hampshire showed it is not an inevitability. But in terms of raw talent and personal appeal, Obama beats Clinton hands down. And now we will see if Democrats agree.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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