That said, those who believe that the Democratic Party is firmly in the hands of a malignant and self-serving corporate and political elite have to explain why “their” candidate, Hillary Clinton, seems to be sinking.
It might be that this is all the result of the magic of charisma, a winning smile and a good turn of phrase. But even so, it would be a mistake for the jaded left, myself included, to dismiss this phenomenon as meaningless, and to ignore it or its potential.
Indeed, I want to suggest here that Obama may at this point have the proverbial tiger by the tail, in that his clarion calls for “hope” and for “change” may be stirring up hopes and expectations for those very things in a way that will not easily be denied should he succeed. (In this he does resemble Jack Kennedy, whose own politics tended to be conservative and Establishment, but whose rhetoric helped stir a generation to political idealism, and may have contributed to the era of '60s activism.)
I would also suggest that while Sen. Obama may well be part of the party Establishment—with a record as a safe backer of the status quo—if he succeeds in winning the nomination, and especially if he goes on and wins the White House, it will be because he has aroused a huge pool of voters in this country who had until now been cynically staying away from politics. It will be because he has transcended the racial divide that has stymied real political change for so long.
And the forces that are propelling him toward the nomination, and toward the White House, are forces that will not easily be denied if they succeed.
That is to say, a President Barack Obama, whatever his own political beliefs (and we don’t really know much about the man), could well find himself, thanks to the movement that puts him in power, freed from the shackles of the Democratic Leadership Council and the army of advisors of stasis and corporatism that cling to most Democratic political figures like barnacles to a rotting pier.
For this to happen, Obama will first have to reach out beyond his current base of support, to rank-and-rile workers—both unionized and non-union--to Latinos and other minority groups, and to older Americans. He’ll have to reach out, that is, to the groups that have thus far still been backing Hillary Clinton and the party Establishment. He need not win all those groups over to his side—in fact it would be better if he didn’t. He needs only to win over the disaffected within those groups—the people who recognize that they have been betrayed by the two parties and by the System.
Should this happen—and it probably will have to happen for this first serious black candidate for the presidency to successfully beat back the Clintonians and the DLC, who will try to kill off his candidacy before the convention—Obama will have been, perhaps in spite of himself, or perhaps because there is in him still some spark of insurgency, transformed into a real agent of progressive change.
None of this means that a President Obama would be a new Franklin Roosevelt. The pressures on any president to “cool it” and play the game of supporting the big moneyed interests that have been undermining and hollowing out America for decades are enormous. But certainly an alternative reality is also possible—namely that an aroused and newly empowered bloc of voters, in bringing a black politician to the pinnacle of power in America, could tip the balance and free that new president from outside of the White Establishment to follow his better instincts. (Franklin Roosevelt himself, remember, was no Franklin Roosevelt when he ran for office; the movement that installed him in office made him into the transformative New Deal figure he became.)
Progressives cannot be naive about this. Even if I’m right, for a Barack Obama administration to become the dawn of a genuine progressive era, it would demand tremendous organizing and continuous political campaigning after Election Day. There will surely be a serious effort by the political Establishment—both on Wall Street and inside the Beltway—to rein in both a new president and the forces that put him there. And Obama himself—clearly no visceral radical--will need to be convinced that the path to a second term lies through heeding his populist base, not through reaching accommodation with the sclerotic old guard.
That is a call-to-arms, though, not a reason to ignore this possibility.
What I’m suggesting here is that Barack Obama’s campaign, by its very rhetoric of change, may be creating something bigger than Barack Obama, and that Barack Obama may never have intended: a powerful constituency for real change.
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This story was published on February 12, 2008.