Despite the extensive quotations here, Mr. Raban’s piece is essential reading as a whole.
Mr. Raban writes of the unsettling experience of an Obama rally:
Politicians who receive mass adulation are a suspect breed, and it’s natural to feel pangs of disquiet at an Obama rally in full cry: the roaring thousands, the fainting women, the candidate pacing slowly back and forth, microphone in hand, speaking lines that have become as familiar as advertising jingles but are seized on by the audience with ecstatic shouts of ‘I love you, Obama!’, to which the candidate replies, with offhand cool – ‘I love you back.’ Lately, I’ve been listening to ancient audio recordings of Huey Long exciting crowds as big as these with his pitch of ‘Every Man a King,’ also to Father Coughlin, the anti-semitic ‘radio priest’ from Michigan, just to remind myself of the authentic sound of American demagoguery. But to see a true analogy for an Obama rally, one need only attend almost any large black church on a Sunday morning, and listen to the preacher, his sermon kept aloft by the continuous vocal participation of the congregants.
But the heart of his argument is this insight:
Those who hear only empty optimism in Obama aren’t listening. His routine stump speech is built on the premise that America has become estranged from its own essential character; a country unhinged from its constitution, feared and disliked across the globe, engaged in a dumb and unjust war, its tax system skewed to help the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer, its economy in ‘shambles’, its politics ‘broken’. ‘Lonely’ is a favourite word, as he conjures a people grown lonely in themselves and lonely as a nation in the larger society of the world. (Obama himself is clearly on intimate terms with loneliness: Dreams from My Father is the story of a born outsider negotiating a succession of social and cultural frontiers; it takes the form of a lifelong quest for family and community, and ends, like a Victorian novel, with a wedding.)
The light in Obama’s rhetoric – the chants of ‘Yes, we can’ or his woo-woo line, lifted from Maria Shriver’s endorsement speech, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ – is in direct proportion to the darkness, and he paints a blacker picture of America than any Democratic presidential candidate in living memory has dared to do. He courts his listeners, not as legions of the blissful, but as legions of the alienated, adrift in a country no longer recognizable as their own, and challenges them to emulate slaves in their struggle for emancipation, impoverished European immigrants seeking a new life on a far continent, and soldiers of the ‘greatest generation’ who volunteered to fight Fascism and Nazism. The extravagance of these similes is jarring – especially when they’re spoken by a writer as subtle and careful as Obama is on the printed page – but they serve to make the double point that America is in a desperate predicament and that only a great wave of communitarian action can salvage it.
By contrast, Clinton wields the domestic metaphor of the broom: ‘It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and I think it might take a second one to clean up after the second Bush.’ It’s a deliberately pedestrian image, and it has defined her campaign. Stuff needs to be fixed around the house, but the damage is superficial, not structural. She has a phenomenal memory for detail, and, given half a chance, reels off long inventories of the chores that will have to be undertaken – the dripping faucet, the broken sash, the blocked toilet, the missing tiles on the roof, that awful carpet on the stairs. Clinton tends to bore journalists with these recitations, but her audiences seem to like them: after the visionary but catastrophic plans of the neoconservatives, the prospect of a return to common-sense practical housekeeping has undeniable charm. Swiping at Obama, she says: ‘I’m a doer, not a talker’ (a phrase with an interesting provenance – it goes back to the First Murderer in Richard III, by way of Bob Dole in his failed bid for the presidency in 1996). But it’s a line that unwittingly draws attention to the intellectual as well as the rhetorical limits of her candidacy.
‘We can get back on the path we were on,’ she promises, meaning the path from which we strayed in November 2000, as if the 1990s were a time of purpose, clarity and unswerving Democratic progress, as well as a period of largely coincidental economic prosperity. Memory’s a strange thing, and Hillary Clinton’s own most notable contributions to those years – the absurd mess of ‘Travelgate’ (widely held to be a factor in Vincent Foster’s suicide), her imperious management of her healthcare plan, whose ignominious defeat contributed to the Republican landslide in the mid-term elections of 1994, her invocation of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ at the time of the Lewinsky allegations – say a lot about her intense personal involvement in projects, good and bad, but hardly speak well for her judgment or diplomatic talents. On the campaign trail now, she presents herself as ‘a fighter’, battle-hardened and combat-ready, prepared to take on the Republicans ‘from Day One’, thereby reminding everyone that, from January 1995 until January 2001, a state of war existed between the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, and that, of the many memorable battles in which Hillary Clinton herself was directly engaged, it’s hard to name one she didn’t lose.
And finally, Mr. Raban speaks summarizes the unique-ness of Mr. Obama’s particular politics:
Obama is that exotic political animal, a left-of-centre empiricist. The great strength of his writing is his determination to incorporate into the narrative what he calls ‘unwelcome details’, and you can see the same principle at work in the small print of his policy proposals. Abroad, he accepts the world as it is and, on that basis, is ready to parlay with Presidents Ahmadinejad, Assad and Castro, while Clinton requires the world to conform to her preconditions before she’ll talk directly to such dangerous types. At home, Obama refuses to compel every American to sign up to his healthcare plan (as Clinton would), on the grounds that penalising those who lack the wherewithal to do so will only compound their problems.