The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary December 15, 2006

The Effectiveness of Hope: A Look at Barak Obama

“We originally scheduled the Rolling Stones, but we canceled them when we figured out that Sen. Obama would sell more tickets” (Slate).

John Lynch may have been joking when he introduced rising Democratic Party star Barack Obama to an unprecedented capacity audience of 1,700 in Manchester a few days ago, but the crack from the New Hampshire Governor wasn’t funny because of its hyperbole; in fact, the laughter the statement drew from the audience may have been because of its truth.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Obama skyrocket from at best a possible vice presidential candidate to a predicted frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination and the greatest threat around to the political machine known as the Hillary Clinton campaign. It’s hard not to find a political blog or online magazine that does not feature a comparison to John F. Kennedy or, in the case of, Jesus Christ.

This is not, of course, inconsistent with Obama’s political career, which ignited suddenly with his rise from irrelevant state senator to senator and national icon with one sweeping speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. This political Horatio Alger story reflects Obama’s campaign narrative, as he never forgets to remind his audience that he is a prime example of how the spirit of America even has a place for a “skinny kid with a funny name.”

The connection between Obama’s message and his success is not only important but the former might actually explain the latter. I don’t want to undermine Obama’s charisma, charm or pin-up good looks, but the combination of all of those could not begin to explain the success that he has had in recent weeks.

What might explain the packed meeting halls this early in the campaign is his message. Democrats recently regained the majority with a broad coalition that encompasses everything from libertarians from the west who hate government intervention in the private market to socially conservative union leaders who demand intervention in the private market.

We have a coalition that is at once mistrustful of big government and at the same time mistrustful of big business. While many of the candidates in the race have tried to reconcile these differences with the same old strategy of veering to the right (see Hillary Clinton on flag burning), Obama’s story and language has the potential to come together and construct a narrative that everyone can agree on.

The narrative I’m talking about begins with Obama’s favorite (and most often made fun of) phrase, “The Audacity of Hope.” This phrase, also the title of his new book, is the beginning of a narrative that rejects both big government and big business in favor of the individual. To use the story of David and Goliath, we are a nation of Davids that have been taken over by the Goliaths of big business and big government.

Creating an America that has a place for hope means creating a country that makes sure everyone has the tools to give them a fair shot. It means defining government programs as aimed to provide opportunities and it frames the new Democratic Party as against any institution that becomes so large, entrenched and corrupt that it stops working for the people.

Hope is forward looking, innovative and an invitation for Democrats to stop simply defending the institutions that were created in the 1940s. In this concept, libertarians see a government that will stay out of their way and economic progressives see a system that will give people the leg up that they need. As much as Obama is being attacked for “empty rhetoric,” he is using a term that a party on the defensive has been afraid to use for quite sometime.

As the campaign kicks into higher gear and Obama’s will is tested, this concept will be tested and we will find out whether the party (and the country) really does have a place for “that skinny kid with a funny name.”


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