The discreet charm of Barack Obama

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Contrary to what you may have read or heard, Sarah Palin is not remotely interesting. Let me give you a sample of her political wit: “In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers. And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.” Forget that it involves a fairly typical speechwriter’s combination of symmetry, pun and piety, and that there is nothing witty about it. Political pundits develop a taste for this kind of thing over the years, rather as a sociologist researching coprophilia might acquire a passion for the Guinness pebbledash. They should be pitied rather than despised.

But their lack of intellectual hygiene should not prevent us from noticing that it is a marketing slogan based on a pun based on another marketing slogan that is itself almost entirely devoid of meaning. The reason why Sarah Palin is suddenly the object of ceaseless irrelevant droning is that the Republican party’s campaign team carefully directed attention to her, and to various qualities they expected her to exhibit, and the assorted hacks did exactly as they were told and duly noted the sparkling wit, the ‘off-the-cuff’ remark about the ‘home-made’ placard about hockey moms, and the ebullient attacks on Obama. In the same way, when it was the DNC, the reporters were informed that Biden would bring passion and humanity to the campaign and, what do you know, they duly detected these qualities in Biden’s vainglorious acceptance speech. 

Much as people may decry the ‘dumbing down’ of politics, it was ever thus. A US election campaign is, if successful, invariably a mystifying charade of ‘personalities’ without personality, depoliticised politics, humourless wit, value-free values… And all of this histrionic display, all of this theatre, all of these gladiatorial trappings, can only sustain a slender pretense that something other than a gentleman’s duel between different sectors of capital is taking place. A pretense that is rendered ever more slender by the habitual carping for ‘bipartisanship’. It is like a professional wrestling promotion in which the two sides that supposedly hate one other are always calling for more cooperation in the squared circle, and a bit more sharing with the title belts please. This is not to say that Election Idol 2008 has nothing to distinguish it. It is supposedly a contest about ‘hope’ (as well as ‘change’), mainly because it offers the important symbolic watershed of getting a black man into the White House, and that is hardly to be dismissed This isn’t like the phoney ‘buzz’ over Howard Dean or that yuppy asshole Ned Lamont, either. Nor is it equivalent to the soul-destroying, craven liberal support for the uninspiring centre-right warmonger John Kerry. The Obama campaign has channelled a dynamic that one can only hope it will be unable to fully control before the inevitable post-November cull. 

But honestly. The real source of urgency in this campaign has nothing to do with Obama’s lacklustre policies, or the (Small) Change You Can Believe In. It is the threat of another four years of elephantine extremists and pachydermic psychos in the White House. On that index, the election is fundamentally, structurally about despair, and panic. The least worst option in the choice between Obama and McCain is a return to ‘normal’ after years of giddy ruling class plunder. A plunder which was accomplished largely by terrorising the public with one crisis after another, by megaphoning selected portions of bin Laden’s cavebound ramblings, by persuading a majority of the American public that a threat from Saddam was imminent and that he had something to do with 9/11, by arresting tupperware terrorists on spurious charges of conspiracy, and so on. Obama, with his modest reform package and his soothing bromides, personifies that desired sense of normality, and I suspect he understands this perfectly well. To be sure, he is conventional and conformist, and he is more socially conservative than most liberals would like. He is aligned to the interests of Wall Street, whose luminaries are bankrolling his campaign, and he will almost certainly be on the case of privatising social security in part or whole at some point. He is an American imperialist, and will be up to his knees in blood in no time at all if elected. 

But Obama is not shrill, his rhetoric isn’t completely irrational, he doesn’t seem to be an overgrown child, and he isn’t forever trying to alarm people with the 3am phone call chatter. By contrast, McCain’s campaign is blithering endlessly about the need to be even more bellicose, to ‘win’ the war in Iraq, to remember 9/11, etc. Their campaign slogan, ‘Country First’, recalls the basic message that America is threatened by these brown terrorists and the liberals might be about to elect one as president. US columnists have picked up, approvingly, on Obama’s efforts at cultivating paternal projection, as if this whole political style wasn’t dubious in itself. But there are lots of different ways to be the Daddy, and Obama is opting to play the responsible daddy who reads to the kiddies at bedtime, maintains discipline, and keeps away burglars. Forget his actual policies for a second. Set aside the sabre-rattling over Iran and Pakistan. The most consistent impression that his campaign generates is one of near serenity, of gently gliding away from the Bush era’s permanent state of emergency. And after eight nerve-racking years, people aren’t going to the polling booths to vote for the best possible programme, any more than they’re going to vote for the candidate with the best speechwriter. They, those who vote for BHO, are going to vote for the candidate most likely to beat McCain, and thwart another term of grand theft auto from the Grand Old Party. This is crime prevention.

One encouraging sign that the election campaign can be about something more than that is that, while Obama leads McCain by 7 percentage points, Nader is getting up to 6% in the polls. This is despite the fact that the left-wing vote is split several ways between various candidates, and despite the fact that his campaign is rarely mentioned in the reporting. His surprisingly strong poll standing is hardly ever discussed, and nor is the fact that campaign is drawing out big crowds, with 4,000 attending a rally in Denver, right in the middle of the Democratic national conference. Nader has his flaws, but I should think that sustaining a serious radical campaign, that is miles away from the main candidates in terms of tone and substance, and attracting this level of support is a remarkable achivement, given that in 2004 his support was at a miserable 0.38%. It says a lot about how the times are changing. I think it unlikely that Nader’s 6 percentage points in the polls will translate into 6% of the votes come November. And the polls vary, with some putting his support closer to 3%. But a respectable vote that surpasses his previous high of 2.7% will at least leave a space open for those inevitable refugees from the Obama campaign.

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