David Greenberg: Why Obamamania? Because He Runs as The Great White Hope.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg is a historian at Rutgers University. He is at work on a history of spin in American politics.]

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's upset victory in the New Hampshire primary last week was every bit as impressive as Sen. Barack Obama's Iowa caucus breakout five days before -- if anything, more impressive, since his win was predicted and hers unforeseen. But the reactions to the two events couldn't have been more different. Obama's Jan. 3 triumph let loose a giddiness bordering on exhilaration among voters and, especially, media commentators, who hailed his triumph as "historic," even though he was not in fact the first African American to win a major presidential nominating contest. (Jesse Jackson won 13 primaries and caucuses in 1988.) By contrast, when Clinton overcame long odds to become the first woman in U.S. history to win a major-party primary, no leading news outlet trumpeted this landmark feat. Many failed to mention it at all.

This startling difference underscores one of Obama's advantages heading into the do-or-die Feb. 5th contests. "Obamamania" sputtered in the Granite State, but it is far from dead. Many of the voters and pundits who were thrilled by Obama's compelling Iowa speech 10 days ago remain intoxicated, heady with the hope that he can deliver not just "change" -- any candidate running would do that -- but a categorically different kind of change from Clinton or the Republican candidates. So what explains the magic?

The most obvious explanation is Obama's stirring oratory, with its notes of generational change and unity. The key to his seduction, though, resides not just in what he says but in what remains unsaid. It lies in the tacit offer -- a promise about overcoming America's shameful racial history -- that his particular candidacy offers to his enthusiasts, and to us all.

Obama's allure differs from the infatuations of past election cycles because it can't be traced to what he has done or will do. In his legislative career, Obama has produced few concrete policy changes, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a rank-and-file fan who can cite one. Not since 1896 -- when another rousing speechmaker, William Jennings Bryan, sought the White House -- has the zeal for a candidate corresponded so little to a record of hard accomplishment. But merely asking if Obama has done enough for us to expect he'd be a good president misses the point, because that measures the past rather than imagining the future.

Yet if Obama charms us by pointing to tomorrow, he doesn't come bearing a new ideological vision. In the 1980 primaries, the insurgent Ronald Reagan won on his robust, pro-military, anti-government conservatism, a philosophy that until then had languished even within the GOP. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton triumphed because he was the first Democrat since the 1960s to formulate a viable and vital new liberalism -- one rooted in years of policy wonkery, a frank reckoning with his party's failures and an early recognition of the importance of globalization.

But where Clinton converted voters to his philosophy with binder-thick proposals, from AmeriCorps to welfare reform to the earned-income tax credit, Obama fans rarely tout his specific ideas. No one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's. On the contrary, Obama's ideology, insofar as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party's working-class base than to upscale professionals.

The Obama phenomenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who he is. ...

Ultimately, it is a fantasy of easy redemption....

Related Links

  • KC Johnson: Obama as"White Hope"?
  • Read entire article at WaPo

    comments powered by Disqus