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It's President Obama

Why, barring scandal, he's in the White House.

Michael Fellman 21 Feb

Michael Fellman, a scholar of U.S. history living in Vancouver, writes about American politics for The Tyee.

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Face of the future?

After thumping Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, Barack Obama will almost certainly seal his nomination on March 4 in Texas and Ohio. Everything is going his way now.

What has happened and what does this victory portend?

One week ago, as he began his week in Wisconsin, Obama filled the biggest indoor public space in the State of Wisconsin -- the hall in Madison where the excellent Badger basketball team rarely loses. In fact, there were several thousand people who could not get into the 20,000-seat arena. The best Clinton could manage last week was a crowd of 4000. As handlers dread empty seats above all else, it has become clear that Obama inspires thousands to Clinton's hundreds.

Last night in Houston, Obama kicked off his two weeks in Texas and Ohio by filling another huge arena. Clinton, who sounded discouraged -- like a woman done in yet again by another sweet-talking, seductive man -- addressed a smaller and far less enthusiastic audience. And the huge number of small donations Obama is garnering across the United States, way more than Clinton, parallels these crowds.

Competence is not on display; charisma is. In the department of mass inspiration, Clinton plods along like a sturdy workhorse while Obama races like a thoroughbred. Her campaign has lacked spark because she does. With his exquisitely tuned oratorical abilities, he has perfectly expressed a collective longing for "change."

Obama's youth appeal

Clinton is a 61-year-old reminder of times past -- especially those of her husband -- while Obama, at 47 and new to public life, is uncontaminated by a long history of political machinations. By now, in addition to alienating younger voters fed up with the ever-dominant boomers, her previously dependable core voters -- blue collar, workers, women, Hispanics, the elderly -- all are swinging to Obama. Unless there is some dramatic implosion in his campaign, this trend will only increase. Unlike many pundits who expect a vicious and protracted battle to the convention, my prediction is that Obama will win both Texas and Ohio after which Clinton will almost certainly concede.

Subsequently, Obama will match up well against McCain. Obama will be taking on a 71-year-old traditionalist who will have no more success using the "experience against callow youthfulness" argument than has Clinton. Obama will make an explicit antiwar argument against the gung-ho warrior McCain, who is deeply tied to a war that 70 per cent of the American people want to end.

Obama will be more open on the immigration issue -- and that will bring Hispanics, among others to his side. He will promise to end income tax reductions to the very rich that Bush enacted and that McCain would continue. (There is irony here, as McCain has flip-flopped on both these issues in order to appeal to his Republican base in the primaries, thus tarring himself with his own recently adopted brush.)

Obama will pledge to raise the minimum wage and to reinvest money not spent fighting a foreign war in badly decaying infrastructure and in a more inclusive medical care plan. In other words he will tie promises for a calmer foreign policy to reformed fiscal and economic projects.

Why McCain's a terrible bet

McCain will prove a weak opponent. Many Republicans detest him because he is personally a nasty-tempered guy and because he has strayed from tax cuts and immigration exclusion in the past. Lots of them will sit this one out.

As well as following eight years of a disastrous right-wing presidency, McCain will also be tarnished by the current recession that has so many working class Democrats and independents moving back to the party that they trust on economic issues. Gay marriage might have worked four years ago and flag burning the election before that to induce such voters to choose on their gut-level social hatreds rather than their material self-interest, but such a Rovian stampede does not appear likely to work for the Republicans this time around.

An Obama landslide also would lead to a huge Democratic victory in congressional elections.

Obama's likely agenda

And, to get way ahead of the story, what then of an Obama presidency? Tax hikes for the rich; liberal appointments to the Supreme Court; higher minimum wages for certain.

Will Obama pull out of Iraq? Almost certainly, particularly if he initiates the exit immediately. But he has left himself a verbal out just in case the war deepens before rather than after the Americans depart. Will he get a serious health care plan through Congress once the special interests dig in? Far less likely.

And of course deep structural issues will remain about which Obama will be able to do little.

Economically, the long-term impact of Reaganism and globalization means that the working class and much of the middle class have been what the Marxists call "immiserated." Their wages and job security have been crumbling, while the very rich have grown vastly richer. The bubble of an ever-rising real estate market has popped -- the central means by which much of the middle-class has been able to profit from the boom times of the past two decades even while they fell into greater economic marginality. Only artificial mortgage schemes kept poorly paid consumers positively engaged in the economy as good union jobs, and long-term middle class careers have ended in the current market revolution.

Abroad, the rise of anti-American regimes is more likely to continue than to be reversed. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Turkey have authoritarian, thinly based regimes that are breeding Islamic revolutions -- if those states collapse, oil prices will explode and alternative fuels will not be available as replacements.

And the ecological Malthusian sink will only grow deeper over time, which the economics of ever increasing productivity, especially in places like India and China, will only exacerbate. No mere American president can reverse global warming.

Self-secure with many identities

Finally, one more look at the potential of Barack Obama. I have just finished reading his premature autobiography, Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, before Obama was famous. He really is an impressive artist -- a magician with words, a reflective and subtle thinker. Compared with Bill Clinton's clunky, excessive and shallow autobiography, this is a model study in introspection -- a very unusual trait for a politician.

Obama has a complex racial and personal heritage. He never knew his Kenyan father, had a flighty, adventuress mother, lived in Indonesia with her and in multi-racial Hawaii with his white grandparents, and struggled with his African-American identity. His great personal theme is liminality, and this makes him aware of the multiplicities of human identity, and comfortable within himself while negotiating among conflicting parts of society.

Occasionally I have had gifted students who come from disadvantaged and chaotic families. Where most people of such backgrounds end up as damaged and dysfunctional adults, there is this remarkable minority, which my social worker sister calls "the invunerables," who turn out to be poised, compassionate and successful adults. They defy the odds; they are only strengthened by their personal struggles.

Obama is such an extraordinary individual. Of course, like all major politicians he has a lust for power that most of us will never understand. But Obama's egoism does not preclude awareness of the needs of others, particularly those less fortunate than he. This equipoise and intelligence will be of considerable value as he reaches the apex of the American political structure in a world filled with war and poverty, violence and grief. But after his inauguration he will work no miracles as grand as the one that has produced his immense and improbable electoral triumph.

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