Vetting Obama before voting for him - Can he deliver?

But could he deliver?
Feb 14th 2008
From The Economist print edition

It is time for America to evaluate Obama the potential president, not Obama the phenomenon

EPATHIS has been an extraordinary week for the man who could become America's first black president. Barack Obama has now won all eight of the primaries and caucuses held since Super Tuesday on February 5th, which ended, more or less, in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. He has won by much larger margins than most people expected, trouncing his rival not just in heavily black states, such as Louisiana, but in ones that are almost completely white, such as Maine. On February 12th he took all three prizes in the "Potomac primary"--Washington, DC, Maryland and, by a socking 29-point margin, Virginia.

Mr Obama now has more pledged delegates than his rival--and he is likely to remain the front-runner for at least another three weeks (see article). Revealingly, Mrs Clinton made her Virginian concession speech from Texas--a state which votes alongside Ohio on March 4th and is already being billed as her last stand. Mr Obama is raising money at the rate of $1m a day, twice as fast as she is; indeed, she has been forced to lend her campaign $5m of her own cash and fire the two people who run her campaign (although her husband has a big say).

Whatever happens, Mr Obama is already that rare thing--a political phenomenon. It is not just that he has managed to survive the Clintons' crude onslaught with grace. He has persuaded huge numbers of people around the world to reconsider politics in an optimistic way. To many Americans, a black man who eschews both racial politics and the conservative-liberal divide is a chance to heal the country's two deepest divisions. To many foreigners, he represents an idealistic version of America--the hope of a more benevolent superpower. Although Mr Obama's slogan "Yes We Can" has been turned into a pop video, the theme of his campaign echoes the Clintons' old tune--"Don't stop thinking about tomorrow".

Optimism is a powerful emotion, but as that song warned, "tomorrow will soon be here." That is why the real questioning of Mr Obama should begin now. With the brief exception of those four heady days after the Iowa caucuses, he has never been a front-runner; now he will be more fully scrutinised. The immediate focus will be on the horse race: can he win? But the bigger issue, which has so far occupied too little attention, is this: what would a President Obama, as opposed to Phenomenon Obama, really mean for America and the world?

Yes, you can; but not immediately
Begin with the horse race. Mrs Clinton is in a bad way--and deservedly so. The Clintons have fought a leaden and nasty campaign; at present, the prospect of a "Billary presidency" (even before you take into account the dynastic Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton aspect) is hardly enthralling. But Mrs Clinton is tough and smart, and now her rival will be under the media microscope. In debates she trumps Mr Obama on mastery of detail--and the race could well be a long, grinding one, perhaps decided in the end by the 796 "super delegates" from the Democratic Party's establishment. These people have tended to be loyal to the Clintons--though many might defect if polls still showed Mr Obama doing better against John McCain.

Mr McCain, whose lock on the Republican nomination looks stronger than ever following his own triple victory in the Potomac primary, is another part of tomorrow Mr Obama's euphoric supporters might think about. The Republicans are a mess, and the elderly Arizonan senator has plainly failed to stir up his party's supporters in the same way as either of the main Democrats. But Mr McCain is a brave man, with huge experience of international affairs and a much longer record of reaching out to his opponents in politics. Why should independent voters, who have often backed Mr McCain in the past, turn to the less proven man?

Of magnets and magic dust
That question is partly answered by Obama the phenomenon. His immediate effect on international relations could be dramatic: a black president, partly brought up in a Muslim country, would transform America's image. And his youthful optimism could work at home too. After the bitterness of the Bush years, America needs a dose of unity: Mr Obama has a rare ability to deliver it. And the power of charisma should not be underrated, especially in the context of the American presidency which is, constitutionally, quite a weak office. The best presidents are like magnets below a piece of paper, invisibly aligning iron filings into a new pattern of their making. Anyone can get experts to produce policy papers. The trick is to forge consensus to get those policies enacted.

But what policies exactly? Mr Obama's voting record in the Senate is one of the most left-wing of any Democrat. Even if he never voted for the Iraq war, his policy for dealing with that country now seems to amount to little more than pulling out quickly, convening a peace conference, inviting the Iranians and the Syrians along and hoping for the best. On the economy, his plans are more thought out, but he often tells people only that they deserve more money and more opportunities. If one lesson from the wasted Bush years is that needless division is bad, another is that incompetence is perhaps even worse. A man who has never run any public body of any note is a risk, even if his campaign has been a model of discipline.

And the Obama phenomenon would not always be helpful, because it would raise expectations to undue heights. Budgets do not magically cut themselves, even if both parties are in awe of the president; the Middle East will not heal, just because a president's second name is Hussein. Choices will have to be made--and foes created even when there is no intention to do so. Indeed, something like that has already happened in his campaign. The post-racial candidate has ended up relying heavily on black votes (and in some places even highlighting the divide between Latinos and blacks).

None of this is to take away from Mr Obama's achievement--or to imply that he could not rise to the challenges of the job in hand. But there is a sense in which he has hitherto had to jump over a lower bar than his main rivals have. For America's sake (and the world's), that bar should now be raised--or all kinds of brutal disappointment could follow.

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