Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Hampshire Intrigue

For those of us who just can't get enough of politics, US primary season is already up and running. (And we complain about our six-week election campaigns.) The commentariat was abuzz on the weekend with the twin surprise out of Iowa: Huckabee over Romney, Obama over Clinton. Now we're in New Hampshire, where John McCain has won in a big way, and Clinton has reversed the tide yet again with a narrowish win over Obama, just as people were beginning to predict an Obama domino effect. Isn't politics fun when you have no vested interest in the outcome?

Conventional wisdom in much of the non-US world has it that Barack Obama does not stand a chance: the American electorate is just not ready to elect an African-American president, especially not a Democrat. Obama, though, is a uniquely appealing candidate for people who might otherwise be subconsciously wary of electing a non-white. He's young. He's nonthreateningly handsome. His rhetoric is cerebral rather than muscular. He speaks not with the populist outrage of John Edwards – that would be a bridge too far – but inspiringly, optimistically. He loves to invoke lofty ideals like unity and "post-partisan politics". He makes people feel good about voting for him.

And perhaps as a result, moderate Republicans don't hate him; at least, not nearly as much as they hate Senator Clinton. Obama's big achievement in Iowa was to mobilise self-identified independent and even Republican voters. Pretty good for a guy who voted against the Iraq war from the outset. Of course, the campaign hasn't been entirely free of nastiness - the 'rumour' doing the rounds that Obama is a 'secret Muslim' comes to mind - and one can certainly expect an escalation of this kind of thing should Obama win the nomination. But so far, so good, at least as far as race-baiting goes.

Now Obama's problem, such as it is, appears to take a somewhat different form: people – certain people - don’t take him seriously. I'm calling this phenomenon Obama's Jonathan Franzen problem. Franzen, you may remember, was none too pleased when Oprah endorsed his critically-acclaimed novel The Corrections as part of her book club. The author felt this cheapened him as an artist, robbed him of his intellectual credibility among the elites he felt to be his natural readership.

Famously, Oprah has now endorsed Obama for President, providing him with a useful injection of popular support. Oprah is staggeringly influential, and when she says Vote Obama, people - certain people - listen. (The cultural implications of this I will leave for a later discussion.) But it's also had the effect of tagging Obama the Oprah Candidate, which, while not particularly damaging in itself, manages to encapsulate a lot of the arguments of the anti-Obama camp: too young, too inexperienced, style over substance, celebrity over policy.

Much of this criticism is valid; 46 is young for a President, and one term in the US Senate is not exactly a substantial resume. But Obama is no fresh-off-the-turnip-truck naif, either. Besides, as job descriptions go, being POTUS is utterly unique. Every other 'experience' up to this point can hardly be expected to prepare the candidate for the actual presidency - even, dare I say, the experience of being married to a two-term prez.

At any rate, given the New Hampshire result, the race for the Democratic nomination is looking suddenly more interesting. Meanwhile, those crazy Republicans vacillate between McCain and Huckabee… it's nice to see the conservatives riven by internal conflict for a change.

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