by Barbara Ehrenreich
When did you begin to think that Obama might be unstoppable? Was it when your grown feminist daughter started weeping inconsolably over his defeat in New Hampshire? Or was it when he triumphed in Virginia, a state still littered with Confederate monuments and memorabilia? For me, it was on Tuesday night when two Republican Virginians in a row called CSPAN radio to report that they’d just voted for Ron Paul, but, in the general election, would vote for… Obama.
In the dominant campaign narrative, his appeal is mysterious and irrational: he’s a “rock star,” all flash and no substance, tending dangerously, according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to a “cult of personality.” At best, he’s seen as another vague Reaganesque avatar to Hallmarkian sentiments like optimism and hope. While Clinton, the designated valedictorian, reaches out for the ego and super-ego, he supposedly goes for the id. She might as well be promoting choral singing in the face of Beatlemania.
The Clinton coterie is wringing its hands. Should she transform herself into an economic populist, as Paul Begala pleaded on Tuesday night? This would be a stretch, given her technocratic and elitist approach to health reform in 1993, her embarrassing vote for a 2001 bankruptcy bill supported by credit card companies, among numerous other lapses. Besides, Obama already just leaped out in front of her with a resoundingly populist economic program on Wednesday.
Or should she reconfigure herself, untangle her triangulations, and attempt to appeal to the American people in some deep human way, with or without a tear or two? This, too, would take heavy lifting. Someone needs to tell her that there are better ways to signal conviction than by raising one’s voice and drawing out the vowels, as in “I KNOW…” and “I BELIEVE…” The frozen smile has to go too, along with the metronymic nodding, which sometimes goes on long enough to suggest a placement within the autism spectrum.
But I don’t think any tweakings of the candidate or her message will work, and not because Obama-mania is an occult force or a kind of mass hysteria. Let’s take seriously what he offers, which is “change.” The promise of “change” is what drives the Obama juggernaut, and “change” means wanting out of wherever you are now. It can even mean wanting out so badly that you don’t much care, as in the case of the Ron Paul voters cited above, exactly what that change will be. In reality, there’s no mystery about the direction in which Obama might take us: he’s written a breathtakingly honest autobiography; he has a long legislative history, and now, a meaty economic program. But no one checks the weather before leaping out of a burning building.
Consider our present situation. Thanks to Iraq and water-boarding, Abu Ghraib and the “rendering” of terror suspects, we’ve achieved the moral status of a pariah nation. The seas are rising. The dollar is sinking. A growing proportion of Americans have no access to health care; an estimated 18,000 die every year for lack of health insurance. Now, as the economy staggers into recession, the financial analysts are wondering only whether the rest of the world is sufficiently “de-coupled” from the US economy to survive our demise.
Clinton can put forth all the policy proposals she likes–and many of them are admirable ones–but anyone can see that she’s of the same generation and even one of the same families that got us into this checkmate situation in the first place. True, some people miss Bill, although the nostalgia was severely undercut by his anti-Obama rhetoric in South Carolina, or maybe they just miss the Internet bubble he happened to preside over. But even more people find dynastic successions distasteful, especially when it’s a dynasty that produced so little by way of concrete improvements in our lives. Whatever she does, the semiotics of her campaign boils down to two words–”same old.”
Obama is different, really different, and that in itself represents “change.” A Kenyan-Kansan with roots in Indonesia and multiracial Hawaii, he seems to be the perfect answer to the bumper sticker that says, “I love you America, but isn’t it time to start seeing other people?” As conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan has written, Obama’s election could mean the re-branding of America. An antiwar black President with an Arab-sounding name: See, we’re not so bad after all, world!
So yes, there’s a powerful emotional component to Obama-mania, and not just because he’s a far more inspiring speaker than his rival. We, perhaps white people especially, look to him for atonement and redemption. All of us, of whatever race, want a fresh start. That’s what “change” means right now: Get us out of here!
Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed (Owl), is the winner of the 2004 Puffin/Nation Prize.