Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Obama – young, gifted and 'black'

By Tony Harnden for the London Telegraph

Beneath the domed ceiling of the Senate chamber on Tuesday evening, two senators stood talking animatedly to colleagues. They were in separate groups barely a foot apart. Each was intensely aware of the presence of the other but did not acknowledge it.

They were Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He, in national politics for just two years, is vying to become America's first black president. She, a former first lady and veteran political spouse, is pursuing a long-nurtured ambition to become America's first woman president.

Hours earlier, Mr Obama had sprung from the 2008 starting blocks by announcing he was exploring a presidential bid. The official declaration is already set for February 10 in Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln, the president who ended slavery and was elected a war president after just two years in Congress.

Immediately after her rival's move, a wrong-footed Mrs Clinton postponed a press conference on Iraq. Yesterday she appeared on all three network morning talk shows. Underneath the studied serenity and tight smile, she was clearly rattled.

As well she might be. I saw the Obama phenomenon – even before his announcement he had already surpassed the status of mere candidate – up close in California late last year. He was the embodiment of everything Mrs Clinton is not.

It was not the Obamamania of his subsequent New Hampshire appearance. This was different. The senator from Illinois, just 45 and elected only two years ago, spoke in a white evangelical mega-church where virtually every person present believed that his stance in favour of abortion rights was a mortal sin.

He did not shrink from expressing his views, but he did so in a perfectly pitched, conversational baritone that silenced the vast hall. Afterwards, he moved effortlessly through the throng, shaking hands, accepting hugs, taking minutes at a time to talk to ordinary folk pressing their opinions on him.

There were none of the minders who surround Mrs Clinton and he did not decline to answer a straight question, as she so often does, preferring to wait to formulate the perfect answer and then repeat it ad nauseam. I asked him what his presence among those whom Republicans refer to as their "base" signified. Looking me in the eye, while signing a book with his right hand, he replied: "We should reach out to all Americans of goodwill who want to work on the issues that bind us together. This is a great example of the opportunities to get problems solved."

It was a simple message and a performance reminiscent of Bill Clinton, whose glad-handing political skills his more disciplined wife has not inherited. While Mrs Clinton can seem shrill and hard edged even when making a sensible, moderate proposal, Mr Obama's undoubted liberalism is enveloped in a warm, fuzzy cloak that makes him sound reasonable no matter what he says.

In an era that Arnold Schwarzenegger has defined as "post-partisan", correctly identifying that a key message from voters in the mid-terms was that they are sick of politics as usual, this is a powerful attribute. Mr Obama, moreover, is not defined by his race. Indeed, the tired Democratic proponents of the politics of racial identity are distinctly lukewarm. Al Sharpton spoke witheringly of the "media razzle-dazzle" surrounding Mr Obama and asked if there was "some real meat there".

Harry Belafonte, the former calypso singer who branded Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice as "house slaves" of the Bush Administration, said: "Obviously very bright, speaks very well, cuts a handsome figure. But all of that is just the king's clothes. Who's the king?" Like much about him that defies categorisation, to describe Mr Obama as simply "black" does not tell all the story. His mother was a white woman from Kansas, while his father was a Kenyan former servant and goat herder. They met in Hawaii and divorced when their son was two.

Mr Obama lived with his mother in Indonesia and attended private schools, where his classmates knew him as Barry. He followed his father by going to Harvard, where he became the first black editor of the Law Review. It wasn't until he was an adult that he even defined himself as African-American.

He is part of a new generation of young black Democrats who regard race as only one aspect of their make-up. They include Congressman Artur Davis, Cory Booker, mayor of New Jersey, and Adrian Fenty, the new mayor of Washington. All are occasionally smeared for being "light-skinned" or "not black enough". It was Mr Davis, who had to endure black taunts about being in the pay of the Jews when he was elected in 2002, who described Mr Obama this week as "the kind of unique transformational candidate who surfaces once in generation".

Mr Obama has the advantage of having arrived in Washington after the vote for the Iraq war that has so dogged Mrs Clinton. He spoke out against the war from the outset but has not endorsed a withdrawal timetable – prompting some Left-wing bloggers to deride him as "O-bomb-a".

Senator John Edwards, who has strong support in the key first caucus state of Iowa and has staked out a position on the Left, is already calling for a pull-out. But he voted for the war.

All three leading candidates for the Republican nomination – Senator John McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor – have staked out hawkish positions on the war. If chaos and death continue, Mr Obama is ideally positioned.

Mr Obama's biggest vulnerability seems to be not that he is black but that he is green, and Americans won't elect a neophyte as commander-in-chief in the post-September 11 world. He is, however, turning his inexperience into an advantage by tapping into the widespread disillusion with established politicians. An apology over a dodgy real estate deal, an admission of cocaine use, even disquiet over his middle name "Hussein" have failed to tarnish his rock-star image.

In 1960, many thought John F Kennedy could not be elected president because he was a Roman Catholic. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan was written off as too old and too conservative. But both men established a connection with voters that transcended their policies.

It is still two years and two days until the 44th president is inaugurated, but Mr Obama is already well placed to make a serious shot at emulating them.

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