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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Charles Kesler

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Charles Kesler

Last Build Date: Fri, 17 Oct 2008 06:25:38 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

The Audacity of Barack Obama

Fri, 17 Oct 2008 06:25:38 -0600

Eager to find himself by finding a community to which he could belong, he was struck, nonetheless, by the flaws or limits of every race, culture, and country he encountered. Unlike other intelligent human beings who have made the same discovery, Obama did not lower his expectations but decided that, just as he could and did choose to refashion his own identity, communities could do the same, with a little help. He spent three years as a community organizer in Chicago, but was disillusioned with the results. Eventually he found in politics, and especially in political oratory, the path he was seeking: the way to redeem the sins of an existing community by leading it to a vision of its future, better self; and to introduce himself, proudly biracial, multicultural, and progressive, as living proof that the divisions and disappointments of the past can be overcome, if never quite left behind. A New Majority Part of the past that Obama wants to transcend is the recent history of the Democratic Party. In The Audacity of Hope, his second autobiography (focused on his Senate years, not quite two of them at that point) and the source of his most thoughtful campaign speeches, he treats the party elders respectfully, but not exactly warmly. He mentions Teddy Kennedy three times, calling him one of the Senate's best storytellers; devotes a page to Al Gore's emotions after his "precipitous fall"; and acknowledges "the Kerry people" who invited him to speak at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama goes out of his way to emphasize that he is a newcomer to the party who couldn't even get a floor pass to the 2000 Convention. Reflecting on the elections of 2000 and 2004, he confesses that "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago...." Obama praises Bill Clinton more highly than any other contemporary Democrat, because Clinton recognized the staleness of the old political debate between Left and Right and came close to moving beyond it with his politics of the Third Way, which "tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans." But Clinton blew it, and the author gradually lets you know it. First, he regrets Clinton's "clumsy and transparent" gestures to the Reagan Democrats, and his "frighteningly coldhearted" use of other people (e.g., "the execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate" before a crucial primary). Then Obama notes sadly that Clinton's policies--"recognizably progressive if modest in their goals"--had commanded broad public support, but that the president had never been able, "despite a booming economy," to turn that support into a governing coalition. Finally, he gently accuses Clinton of the worst offense of all: strengthening the forces of conservatism. Due to his "personal lapses" and careless triangulations that ceded more and more ground to the Right, Clinton prepared the way for George W. Bush's victory in 2000. In his campaign speeches, Obama can't afford to be so candid--he needs Hillary and Bill's supporters, after all--but he subtly makes his point. For example, in his Acceptance Speech in Denver, the single biggest speech of the campaign, he laid at Bill Clinton's feet the oldest backhanded compliment in the books, thanking the former president "who last night made the case for change as only he can make it...." That's a disguised double insult: it reminds the discerning ear of Clinton's characteristic bloviation, and then of his political failings (when you see Clinton, you're reminded why the Democrats need Obama). Granted, Obama holds Clinton to higher standards than he does the other party elders. Jimmy Carter, Gore, Kerry--these gentlemen lacked the political talent that Clinton squandered, in Obama's estimation, and they were innocent of political daring. Their shortcomings are palliated, to some extent, by the fact that the times were not auspicious. Still, Obama is fairly clear that if the party is to move forward it must ret[...]