Remembering 'Obama for America'
Was the 2008 campaign really that long ago?
Jonathan Bernstein and Ross Douthat are arguing over the uniqueness of the excitement that Barack Obama's candidacy generated. Douthat says that Obama "persuaded Democrats that the laws of politics had been suspended, and that every legislative goal they’d ever dreamed about was now within reach." Bernstein rejoins that "activists get enchanted by candidate? C'mon, that's the oldest story in the book. Happened with George W. Bush, happened with Bill Clinton, happened with Ronald Reagan, happened, sad to say, with Jimmy Carter."
At this point, we're used to seeing a black man give speeches from the Rose Garden, which is how Douthat can write about the excitement that greeted Obama without even mentioning his skin color. But it was a novel concept back then, and as it came closer and closer to reality, people began to feel that they were witnessing -- and even participating -- in something important. You can't write about the enthusiasm his candidacy generated -- and in particular, the sense that it was somehow "different" -- without mentioning the actual thing that made it different.
Similarly, Bernstein goes too far in likening the Obama candidacy to every other silver-tongued politician who won hearts and minds in the snows of New Hampshire. Given the history of our country, Obama's campaign was meaningful in a way that Bill Clinton's or George W. Bush's or Ronald Reagan's simply wasn't, and for reasons that had nothing to do with whether cap-and-trade legislation was imminent. On those more prosaic questions, the debate was much more typical of any primary campaign, with some people arguing that Hillary Clinton's experience would make her more effective while others felt John Edwards's rhetorical skills would give him the edge and everyone overestimating how different the various candidates were from one another.
As it happened, Obama's administration ended up making substantial and unexpected accommodations to the laws of politics -- see Emanuel, Rahm -- and getting a lot more done than his doubters expected. But that could've been true -- or not true -- for any of them. Maybe Hillary Clinton would've proven a profound moral leader from the Oval office. "Presidential candidate likeliest to pass health-care reform" was a jump ball back in the 2008 election. "Presidential candidate likeliest to be the first African American president" wasn't, and it was too big a deal to write it out of histories of Obama's supporters.
Photo credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters.
| December 28, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
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