The Third Estate
What Is The Third Estate?
What Has It Been Until Now In The Political Order?
What Does It Want To Be?

What Is Barack Up To?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Barack Obama is a fascinating politician. A dazzlingly eloquent orator, community organizer, viable black candidate, and a pure enigma. He's a riddle that many liberals are trying to solve, myself among them.

I've read his 2nd book (although not yet his first), watched all of his major speeches, read the biographical pieces, and considered his candidacy for months. I have ultimately narrowed the possibilities down to two: the Little Obama and the Big Obama.

Little Obama is a liberal, to be sure, but one scarred by his defeat in 2000 at the hands of Bobby Rush, well aware of the role that dumb luck has played in his rise, and deeply aware of the vulnerabilities confronting any black candidate for national office. Little Obama uses sweeping rhetoric that inspires liberals, while delivering consensus-based policies that give few targets for attack. If elected, Little Obama will support liberal policies when circumstances allow, but will in the end be about re-electing Little Obama. In essence, Little Obama is the true successor to Bill Clinton.

Little Obama is the Obama that many liberals fear, and his vagueness is the lever by which the Republicans and their tame press corps will strike at him. Little Obama is a worthy candidate for office, but nothing to get so excited about. Except, of course, that he would be the first African-American President - no small thing.

But there is another Obama, one that peeks out from between the pages of his book and whispers in background of his speeches. That Obama is the Obama that might be - Big Obama.

Big Obama is first and foremost a student of rhetoric. His campaign is therefore a sustained act of public persuasion - it is in fact structured like a single speech. First you establish a rapport with the audience, then you lay down core principles which earns their consent, after which they are locked into the policies that flow from those principles. He is presently only in stage I and hinting at stage II, so you can't complain that he doesn't have specifics. It is, after all, only February of 2007.

Big Obama understands that appeals to national unity can be the greatest ally of liberalism. The unity propagated by the right is one that demands obedience to authority, while the unity of the left calls for civic engagement. If one has hope that we can solve our problems, and demands of his fellow citizens that they help do so, then government is no longer the problem or the solution. Government, in fact, becomes merely one instrument among many.

Big Obama realizes that the problems facing the country today are not simply a matter of laws, but of attitudes. The conservative hegemony of the last generation is predicated on our own inability as a community to solve problems - it denies in fact that there is any we at all. The reason Big Obama's rhetoric is so powerful is that it speaksinstead to deep-seated but long-ignored desires in this country to be one country, and a juster one at that.

Big Obama's aim is not only to change party control or public policies, but to revive democracy itself. Democracy is not just a matter of substance, but also of process, a process of public debate and elections that has become thoroughly debased. Big Obama is trying to elevate the tone for its own sake, but also by doing so he reduces to conservatives to a gaggle of screeching, unattractive naysayers.

A Big Obama would be the most formidable liberal political leader since Robert Kennedy, and would have the opportunity to smash the long stalemate in American political and social life. He would also have deployed the rhetorical weapons to fatally undermine conservatism's ideological dominance. It would be the liberal renaissance we have all been waiting for.

So which is it? As of yet it is impossible to know. Either Obama would at this stage of the race behave in the same way. The question remains whether Obama will be a Cicero or a Demosthenes, for when Cicero spoke, the people said "How well he spoke." When Demosthenes spoke, the people said "Let us march."
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:25 PM
  • Very persuasive analysis. However, it need not be either/or. Little Obama will win the 2008 presidential election, then Big Obama will govern. This will happen because the American people will re-elect a Democratic Congress that will help Big Obama carry out Big Ideas.

    It's been a long time since we have had 2 visionaries - Obama and Edwards - running for the highest office in the land. The closest parallel is 1968.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 9:26 PM  
  • I don't think that any Democratic President will be able to override Republican opposition (from the filibuster if nothing else) without altering the landscape of political debate. That requires action during the campaign. It is a dangerous illusion to think one can campaign as one thing and govern as a another - particularly when you are attempting to overturn the status quo.

    By Blogger Arbitrista (formerly Publius), at 10:17 PM  
  • "It is a dangerous illusion to think one can campaign as one thing and govern as a another- particularly when you are attempting to overturn the status quo." I would agree with you, except that we, unfortunately, have a perfect counter-example in Bush. Bush campaigned as a moderate in 2000 and then governed as a radical after stealing the election. The reason is simple: Matthew Dowd told him that, based on the exit polls, the so-called moderate or independent voter who could be convinced to vote for either party no longer existed as an electoral force. The only real force was the size of the party's base, and making sure that the Republican's base was bigger than the Democrat's base.

    Little Obama is speaking to the Democratic Party's base and to the few independents/moderates out there who will help him win the election. Once elected, Big Obama will enlarge the Democratic base (from 25 to 40 or 50 percent) by changing the landscape of political debate. After all, this has been done in the past with FDR. Roosevelt created a new coalition out of the debris of the Great Depression. I suspect Obama will create a new coalition out of the debris of Iraq.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 11:00 PM  
  • Bush was precisely who I was referring to. He is not a good example, because he was not interesting in overturning the status quo. He had the benefit of an already-institutionalized political majority. And by the way, his political position was steadily eroding until 9/11.

    By Blogger Arbitrista (formerly Publius), at 6:17 AM  
Post a Comment
<< Home

:: permalink