Friday, December 15, 2006

What they're saying in the U.K.

The skinny kid serving up a healthy portion of hope

By Alison Rowat for the London Herald

He once described himself as "a skinny kid with a funny name". Now Barack Obama has new people writing the script, the billing has got better, and bigger. In a Time profile of the Democratic senator from Illinois, headlined why Barack Obama could be the next president, he was described as the political equivalent of a rainbow, "a sudden preternatural event inspiring awe and ecstasy". No-one has ever said that about Hillary.

Until now, the former- first-lady-turned-senator has been considered a shoo-in for her party's nomination. Having done her time at Bill's side, the Cinderella moment awaits. Though it's still not certain she will take it, the amount of money in her coffers, and her appointment of key advisers, suggest an announcement is close. What must be giving her some last minute pause for thought is the ascendancy of Obama. Whatever's fuelling his jets has come straight from Cape Canaveral.

First there was the speech at the 2004 convention in Boston that made not only John Kerry, the candidate-in-waiting, but Bill and Hill look tongue-tied and tired. The years since have been relatively quiet, with Obama getting on with the job of being a senator and building a network. Now he has returned to national, and international, attention with a visit to New Hampshire, traditionally the starting line for presidential races, and a best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope.

Obama is big on hope. With him it's an obsession, his unique selling point. When this Harvard-educated son of a poor Kenyan student and a white girl from Kansas talks about the American dream, he does so with the immeasurable advantage of having lived it. The last politician to make such a fetish of hope was Bill Clinton, another irony, together with the prospect of a feminist taking on an African-American candidate, that won't have escaped Hillary's notice. As for her own book, It Takes a Village (to raise a child), Obama, largely brought up by his grandparents, got there first, too.

Yet there's hope, and there's its distant cousin, delusion. At 45, Obama is young (Hillary is 59, John McCain, Republican front runner, is 70), and inexperienced. All of this before you even get to the question of race. Young as he is, Obama was born into an America that was still three long, hard and bloody years away from the Civil Rights Act.

Obama mania 2006 could be viewed as part of the giddy whirl in which his party has been caught up since its victory in the midterms. The music has already stopped for some of his colleagues, leaving them standing in fairly embarrassing positions.

Nancy Pelosi, from whom much is expected as the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives, is looking wobbly after appointing as head of an intelligence committee a man who doesn't know his Sunni from his Shia. If someone like Pelosi, with 20 years' experience in politics, is finding the intense scrutiny that comes with real power difficult to handle, there's no telling how Obama would fare.

To all these criticisms there are counter arguments. For young, read energetic and in touch with a rapidly changing, ethnically diverse America; for inexperienced, see untainted, particularly by Iraq.

Smart, church-going, a father of two, Obama is the vessel into which some of Democratic America can pour its hopes for now. The man himself is wary of the hype, as well he should be. It's significant that he hasn't yet begun to attract major attention from the right. There's a story bubbling in the blogosphere and local press about buying a strip of land from a controversial fundraiser, but it's a pretty small spot for critics to park their tanks on.
Hillary can at least say she's been through the fire of press scrutiny and public opprobrium and come out alive. Unless there's some obscure corner of the Clintons' family life that hasn't been dusted for scandal, or another bimbo eruption waiting to happen, there's nothing left to throw at her. What remains is prejudice, against her, but above all against what she represents – the past.

It's here Obama could have the greatest advantage. The America that showed itself keen on change in November could be desperate for it by 2008. Bush can at last say he is representative of the entire nation in as much as he looks as weary of this presidency as they are. As voters cast around for a replacement, what might they see? The front runners seem to have been on the trail forever, acquiring baggage as they go. McCain and Clinton, the human Buckaroos. Standing next to them, the skinny kid with the funny name seems worth a look.
Who knows how long he'll last – two months could be pushing it, never mind two years. What matters is that people are again talking about the US presidency with a sense of, dare we say it, hope.
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