Why Britain loves Barack

18 Jul 08
MELISSA BENN | For those with any remaining doubts about Barack Obama‘s formidable personal appeal, I direct them to the YouTube clip ’Barack Obama on Ellen’

For those with any remaining doubts about Barack Obama‘s formidable personal appeal, I direct them to the YouTube clip ’Barack Obama on Ellen

 — currently registering well over a million hits — in which the US presidential candidate engages in some spontaneous dance moves with TV host Ellen DeGeneres on her prime-time chat show.

On one level, it’s pure show business. On another, it’s a small sign of just how radical a departure Obama represents for US politics: an elegant, self-possessed African American with a feel for popular culture and a real chance of getting to the White House. Obama is also a relatively young man who deliberately taps into an older, if still powerful, political folk memory — the spirit of John F Kennedy.

Such hope and idealism travel well in our turbulent times. The polls in the US may be neck and neck but this week, on the eve of Obama’s whistlestop tour of Europe, a Guardian/ICM poll found him to be five times more popular among British voters than his elderly, conservative opponent John McCain.

But what do we really know of Obama’s policies? Some political commentators are already criticising him for back-pedalling, particularly on foreign policy. They point to recent significant shifts, such as changing his mind over the speed of troop withdrawal from Iraq, and concessions he made over Israel.

Obama has also been criticised for failing to understand the trials of white working-class America, a weakness exploited by Democrat rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign towards the end of the primaries.

In general, though, Obama looks more sure-footed at home. The manifesto on his website, The blueprint for change: Barack Obama‘s plan for America, opens with an outspoken attack on corporate lobbyists. He also promises to bring ’democracy and policy’ directly to the people; Cabinet officials will be required to hold regular town hall public meetings.

Obama is full of New Labour-style praise for the free market, but makes some significant pledges on tax and welfare matters. Worlds away from Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s bungle over the 10p tax band, Obama makes a carefully costed promise to give every family a $250 tax break, rising to $500 should the economy rapidly worsen, which it almost certainly will. He promises more frequent uprating of the minimum wage.

Health care, or the lack of it, is one of the US’s great scandals: 45 million Americans don’t have health insurance. Obama promises to introduce a universal health care scheme, while bringing down crippling health care premiums.

There are also significant promises on education, equal pay, a fairer, better managed migration policy, increased investment in renewable fuels, and surprisingly strong statements on the rights of trades unions to free collective bargaining and the right to strike.

Politically, Obama may lack the common touch, but, as a civil rights lawyer, community worker and senator for the South Side of Chicago, his record of grassroots organisation is impressive. When active in local government, he initiated reforms of childcare subsidies, tax credits and health care, and battled against predatory mortgage lending — all themes that now find prominence in his presidential campaign and blueprint.

’I’m in this race for the same reason that I fought for jobs for the jobless and hope for the hopeless on the streets of Chicago,’ he says.

It’s stirring stuff. But Obama will need to hold on to such passion, should he be elected to office this November. As president, it will be much harder to resist the corporate lobbyists and Washington power brokers. And the internet smears and sophisticated liberal media satire (such as the New Yorker front cover cartoon depicting him in traditional Muslim attire and his wife Michelle as a terrorist) that are already dogging his campaign can only increase.

For all his struggles, this early stage of Obama’s campaign might well remind British voters of the May 1997 General Election, which would explain his high poll ratings here. Then, too, a young, charismatic leader appeared, who carried the hopes of the country’s dispossessed as well as its fair-minded citizens.

But those particular dreams ended in the danger and spiralling costs of the Iraq war. And Tony Blair the idealist became Blair the international power broker, who chose to align himself with the international elite rather than with the wishes of his own people.

The question haunting Obama’s campaign for the presidency will be this: can he run the most powerful nation in the world, which is experiencing a deepening economic crisis, while defending the interests of the poor and marginalised people?

It’s a job for which he’ll need a great deal more than just charisma, or deft dance moves, in the years to come.

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