January 07, 2008

Why Obama Beats Hillary

The election tomorrow in New Hampshire will likely cement Barack Obama's status as the leading Democratic contender for the Presidency. Some of the most recent polls place him 10-12% ahead of Mrs. Clinton, and all observers on the ground agree that he has tremendous momentum. He is filling every hall, and the crowds leap to their feet with enthusiasm. In contrast, former President Clinton, it is widely reported, is not filling halls, and those who do come applaud politely

How has this happened? How could Hillary Clinton, with more than $100 million and the backing of hundreds of former officials from her husband's presidency, lose to a first-term Senator, much less a Black man who is in his mid-forties? How could Obama beat not one Clinton, but two? There are many possible answers to this question, but for convenience let us begin with the Hillary negatives and then move to the Obama positives. 

HIllary wants to be perceived as the candidate of experience, yet this is a weak platform for her. She bungled health care when given the chance to put forward a plan as First Lady, and it came out during the campaign that she did not have a security clearance, and therefore lacked access to important foreign policy documents when in the White House. Nor did her vaunted experience stand her in good stead when faced with the Iraq War. She voted for it, suggesting that she has not learned enough, despite the opportunities. Did she support it because she genuinely agreed with President Bush? Or was she too timid to stake out an anti-war position, fearful that she could not get elected president if she looked "soft"? Unfortunately for her, the post-war period has gone so badly that the American people by a considerable majority want to get out of Iraq. So does Hillary now.

She wants to be the first women president, but her charismatic husband gets in the way. Too often she seems to be riding her husband's coat tails, which does not work well when he is no longer running himself. But the key problem is that she simply does not compare well with him. Bill Clinton generated a public enthusiasm but Hillary does not. She is a better speaker than George Bush, which is not saying much, but she does not electrify a crowd.

That is the first Obama positive. He does electrify a hall, as he speaks with passion and conviction. His speech after the victory in Iowa was masterful, and already some are comparing him to some of the greatest public speakers in US history, namely Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Obama knows how to build up to a climax and take the crowd with him. He does not just talk about hope, he creates it. 

The second positive for Obama is that he does not talk about being Black. Rather, he embodies what it means for a Black man to have attended Columbia and later Harvard Law School, without taking the lucrative path to a big law firm. Instead, Obama chose politics and public service. He also chose to be inclusive, defining himself not as a minority candidate, but as a candidate in the Democratic mainstream. The reason white audiences respond to him so positively is that he never tried to lay down a guilt trip, to make people feel bad about the injustices of the past. Instead, he calls out to their good impulses to make a better future. The fact of Obama being there at all is an embodiment of hope.

The third positive for Obama is that he has built up a coherent campaign theme based on hope. It began with his two books, both bestsellers that reached a large audience with his message of personal transformation, growth, and hope for change. In contrast, Hillary wrote a memoir about her years in the White House that sold well enough, as her publisher advertised heavily to get back the big advance. But look at their books today on Amazon. Obama's The Audacity of Hope is number 36 overall, but number one in non-fiction books on government and number one among all biographies and memoirs. Hillary Clinton's A Woman in Charge is number 14,752 overall, and only number 49 in biographies and memoirs. Her Living History from 2004 is below 49,000. His Dreams from My Father is the best-selling non-fiction book about African Americans, and it is in the top 400 books. 

So, Hillary has not become as strong and convincing a spokesperson for American women as Obama has for African-Americans. You have to feel sorry for her. She is a good candidate, better than Kerry, far better than Bush. But Obama is a great candidate, a once-in-a-lifetime candidate. Let us hope he can continue as he has begun.