The early days of a better nation

by Henry on March 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking most of today about Barack Obama’s speech on race and American society; while we’ve tried to avoid too much horserace type commentary here in the last couple of months, I don’t think that this fits well under horse race politics. Before the speech, if you’d asked me which candidate I’d support if I could vote, I’d have said Obama. After the speech, it’s quite different.

I’ve lived in the US for the last four years as a permanent resident, and been quite happy here. Hearing Obama speak made me feel for the first time that I genuinely want to become a citizen of this country and a part of the larger project that he talked about, regardless of specific disagreements I might have. You hear a lot of guff in politicians’ speeches about how great America is; Obama seemed to me to be challenging America to be great, which is a very different and much riskier thing, as well as something I find much more compelling and attractive. Obviously, I’m only speaking for myself here (other CTers’ mileage may vary widely), and I’m not going to talk about it any more, but I felt it would be dishonest if I said nothing (which would be the easier option for an academic, I think; we’re not supposed to talk about sincere personal commitments without some degree of ostentatious sighing, display of jaded skepticism etc).

{ 5 trackbacks }

Obama Speech on Race in America from Philadelphia | Reno and Its Discontents
03.19.08 at 5:01 am
Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Obama’s grandmother
03.19.08 at 4:21 pm
Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » The speech
03.19.08 at 6:42 pm
Fruits and Votes » Prof. Shugart's Blog » Being part of the project
03.20.08 at 5:17 pm
Caer Corvus » Blog Archive » The Personal is Political
03.25.08 at 3:48 am

{ 119 comments }

1

Matt 03.19.08 at 4:13 am

Just a few minutes ago I was listening to the Oyster Band version of this song thinking that it would be a great campaign song for the right politician. One thing that I like about Obama is that he seems willing to suggest that something more than tinkering needs to be done. I really don’t know if he’ll be able to, or will even try, to do more than tinker, but at least he offers some hope that this might be done.

2

Doug 03.19.08 at 4:18 am

I’m living in Germany now, and was recently asked to explain Obama’s appeal. I said, “He shows us at our best, and challenges us to live up to it.”

I don’t know if that’s enough to get him to the White House, but goodness I hope so.

3

Dr Paisley 03.19.08 at 4:23 am

we’re not supposed to talk about sincere personal commitments without some degree of ostentatious sighing, display of jaded skepticism etc

And inventing the internets, don’t forget that.

Srsly, I do think you have identified why so many people who are not normally interested in and/or excited by politics, especially national politics, are becoming so involved in this election.

4

Richard Cownie 03.19.08 at 4:30 am

Obama’s terrific fundraising and organizing will get him to the White House. The fact that he’s intelligent, thoughtful, decent, liberal, and interested in unglamorous but important policy issues is a rare and happy coincidence which might make him a great president.

Terrific speech, with subtlety and delicacy in dealing with issues that most politicians would regard as radioactive. But then he’s lived his whole life on the uneasy boundary between black and white culture, so he’s almost uniquely qualified to address these issues.

5

Neil 03.19.08 at 5:21 am

But is there any defining difference between the domestic policies of Obama and Clinton that would indicate that either would do that much better than the other in making the US a better place?

When it comes down to it it’s going to be through particular legislation in such areas as health and education that will be important. And although there are some differences between them there’s nothing I can see that gives either a huge edge.

I’ve seen some quite extravagant claims from supporters on both sides about how transformational their favourite would be but I keep thinking that the big transformation is having a Democrat in the White House. It won’t make a big difference which.

6

Jacob Rus 03.19.08 at 5:42 am

I went to Obama’s rally in Boston 1.5 months ago, and that speech was about halfway between all the other campaign speeches of his I’ve heard, and this speech of today. I had been a supporter before, but the day after, sent in $25, and will be hitting the streets in PA next week.

This most recent speech was incredible. I’ve just been reading Toqueville this week, and damn, it will be nice to finally have a president who “gets it” in a way that none in my lifetime have.

7

Jacob Rus 03.19.08 at 5:44 am

Neil: Yes. The difference is in having a candidate who deeply understands and can explain why those policies matter.

8

Luis 03.19.08 at 5:46 am

Neil: I think perhaps even more importantly a candidate who will challenge individual Americans to participate in making those policies (and those broader visions) a reality instead of saying ‘send me to DC, I’ll take care of it for you.’

9

rm 03.19.08 at 5:51 am

Neil, also: yes. Policies matter, but they are not sufficient. We also need:
— The ability to persuade, to frame the policies, to get a majority thinking these policies are what needs to happen
— Electoral coattails.

So, I will be happy with either Clinton or Obama, but I don’t think Clinton will get as much accomplished.

I think Obama’s speech today was a landmark. I suspect it will become a classic. I think it’s a test for America, whether we engage with his message in the same grown-up way he delivered it, or distort, simplify, deny, or invert the message in our usual stupid discourse.

10

brooksfoe 03.19.08 at 6:18 am

I think it’s a test for America, whether we engage with his message in the same grown-up way he delivered it, or distort, simplify, deny, or invert the message in our usual stupid discourse.

Exactly. I’ve been inspired and relieved to see the reaction so far from the NY Times editorial board and, more importantly, from Maureen Dowd. It’s almost as if Obama shamed Dowd out of her usual snide schtick. I think for anyone with a sense of seriousness and responsibility about journalism and politics, to see him take those kind of risks in this speech commanded a certain level of respect and commensurate seriousness in the response.

11

Neil 03.19.08 at 6:32 am

“The difference is in having a candidate who deeply understands and can explain why those policies matter.”

But it seems to me that the fervent supporters of Obama and Clinton make exactly the same claim about their preferred candidate. And why wouldn’t they?

But I can’t see any factual basis for thinking that either one would have a greater transformational effect than the other.

Given that the polls show a close match it seems that both have strong support. I’m skeptical about either side trying to claim that it is only they who can progress a liberal agenda.

12

glenn 03.19.08 at 6:43 am

Neil: it’s all about the person(ality) and character. Obama alone can help bridge the gap. Clinton is way too divisive; she’d likely only make things worse, and frankly, it seems she likes it that way.

13

Harl Delos 03.19.08 at 6:49 am

Before the speech, if you’d asked me which candidate I’d support if I could vote, I’d have said Obama. After the speech, it’s quite different.

The rest of your post seems to suggest you found his speech inspiring. I’m not sure why this would lead you to no longer wish you could vote for him.

I’m a conservative independent, and usually vote GOP. I have serious reservations about Obama’s liberal inclinations, obviously, but I also have reservations about McCain’s hawkish inclinations and especially serious reservations about Hillary’s character.

I think it’s Sturgeon’s Law. Our tastes are shaped by glimpses at magnificence, and consequently, we consider the merely outstanding to be mediocre.

The tie-breaker is this: I think Barack Obama can move us forward in the area of race relations, which has been a serious problem in this country for too many decades. I think he is a man of character. I think he realizes that it’s a global economy, and if everybody is prospering from trade, war becomes unacceptably unprofitable for everyone.

And even if he disappoints, he could still be considerably above average. So he’s liberal? There are worse things to be.

14

brooksfoe 03.19.08 at 7:06 am

Um, harl, Henry’s post was an example of a rhetorical strategy which probably has some Greek name but which in the TV business we just call a “cliffhanger”. The close of the first paragraph sets you up to wonder: did he hate the speech? Did he love it? Then you find out: not only did he love it, he loved it so much it made him want to change his citizenship.

So, yeah, he still would like to vote for Obama if he could.

15

Zach 03.19.08 at 7:09 am

“But I can’t see any factual basis for thinking that either one would have a greater transformational effect than the other.”

There are a number of critical issues on the horizon that require far more than a legislative agenda. We can slow down the looming energy crisis with taxes on wasteful behavior and incentive programs for those who conserve, but a president who can challenge Americans to take a new burden and do the right thing will accomplish far more with less expenditure of time and resources. A president who can inspire parents to take an active role in their children’s education can do more than a teacher’s pay raise alone.

Obviously I can’t predict whether Obama can do these things, but the potential is obviously there. Either Democratic candidate will be able to begin to undo the damage of the Bush administration, but with Obama there is the possibility that we can do great things and not merely what is necessary.

16

novakant 03.19.08 at 7:31 am

But is there any defining difference between the domestic policies of Obama and Clinton that would indicate that either would do that much better than the other in making the US a better place?

Maybe, maybe not, but as a non-US citizen I am mostly concerned with US foreign policy and in this regard Obama looks like the best bet. Without doubt there are interdependencies between domestic and foreign policy, but a liberal domestic policy doesn’t necessarily translate into good foreign policy (cf. Kennedy/Johnson).

17

dsquared 03.19.08 at 7:43 am

it’s all about the person(ality) and character

oh jesus. any time anyone says this, check your wallet. of course it isn’t. nothing as big as the USA could possibly be all about the personality and character of one person.

18

Jacob Rus 03.19.08 at 7:50 am

Neil: No.

The Clinton supporters make the argument, and this seems in my experience to be their main argument, that Clinton will a) be more experienced at fighting the Republicans on their own terms and at handling crises, and b) she’ll be able to effectively cut back-room deals to get a Democratic legislative agenda past, whereas Obama will supposedly be unable to stand up to the Republicans, will cave under pressure, and will just make pretty speeches while the “real policymakers” undermine him.

Obama supporters argue, by contrast, that Obama will move the country away from a discourse focusing on the trivial and divisive, will stop arguing every policy issue in Republican political frames, will stop ceding the “values debate” to the right, and will instead re-infuse American dialog with a clear explanation of liberal values, will actively encourage grass-roots participation instead of promising a paternalistic government which can watch out for all our needs, will explain why government action is legitimate and desirable, why government regulation is good for citizens and for businesses, etc.

If you think that both campaigns and their supporters say the same thing, you are probably not listening carefully to either side.

19

Jacob Rus 03.19.08 at 7:53 am

And most importantly, why in American democracy, power flows upwards from the people: why we should feel ownership in the government; why we should take political action.

20

dsquared 03.19.08 at 7:53 am

further to which, Henry, mate, this is what we all thought about Blair in 1997 and look how that turned out. What you’re actually feeling is the euphoria of the imminent end of Bush.

21

A. Y. Mous 03.19.08 at 8:10 am

But what I don’t get is that the President of the U. S. of A. is an executive officer of the government. So, what’s values and principles got to do with it? Isn’t that the job of the legislature? Nice to have them, no doubt. But as the deciding factor?

22

krhasan 03.19.08 at 8:16 am

As a non US citizen living outside the US I’ve come to feel that Obama would be best, for many reasons. My only fear is that in order to prove his toughness he’ll launch his own Bay of Pigs – his repeated remarks indicating he’ll strike Pakistan if he thinks he might get Osama Bin Laden don’t sound good to me.

23

bad Jim 03.19.08 at 8:21 am

I hate to exhibit my keen grasp of the obvious, but the personality of the president of the U.S. does make a bit of difference. Paranoid presidents have been known to avail themselves of their immense powers to stifle opposition. Consider Nixon’s Enemies List, his misuse of the FBI and the IRS, or Bush’s use of federal attorneys to harrass Democratic office holders.

Recall the insouciance Bush displayed towards the catastophe in New Orleans. One of his aides had to make a DVD of the news coverage to get the guy to get the point that this was something to which attention needed to be paid.

And why, exactly, did the U.S. and the U.K invade Iraq, anyway?

24

bad Jim 03.19.08 at 8:27 am

By the way, krhasan, we’ve already been launching missiles into Pakistan. Not to say that it’s a good thing, or that it was okay for Obama to have advocated it, just that it’s actually becoming rather routine.

25

krhasan 03.19.08 at 9:08 am

bad jim : true, but one hopes a President Obama would be more inclined to “jaw jaw”. He has also said he’s ready for talks with other “villains” without preconditions, and has stuck to his guns on that despite being criticized.

26

toby 03.19.08 at 9:46 am

I have that feeling things will never be the same again as regards race in a Presidential election. No matter what happens, I think Obama’s candidacy will never be forgotten.

27

A. Y. Mous 03.19.08 at 9:54 am

krhasan, that’s precisely the point. Whether to “jaw jaw” or “paw paw” is *not* the decision of the executive. That is for the legislature to debate and arrive at. How effective will the implementaion be, be it diplomatic negotiations or outright war. That is dependent on the President and his officers.

Or is the U. S. of A. becoming an enlightened monrachy and you folks are on the lookout for the proverbial philosopher king?

28

MFB 03.19.08 at 10:41 am

A Y Mous, I have a bit of bad news for you, at least if you dwell within ICBM range of the United States. The US became a monarchy a long, long time ago, and its monarch-President has the authority to declare war against whoever he goddamn well pleases. If the legislature doesn’t like it, they can suck eggs.

And, no, it is not an enlightened despotism.

And as for Obama as philosopher-king, puhleez.

But, to be fair, compared with the septic-tanks that the US and the rest of the West has to put up with, Obama actually doesn’t look quite so bad as they are. I will even stick my neck out and say he might be at least no worse than Blair seemed to be. (By the way, before the post-election euphoria, I seem to recall Blair was not especially massively admired.)

29

A. Y. Mous 03.19.08 at 10:41 am

Just read and then heard it. Must admit, a pretty darned good speech. God bless.

30

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 10:43 am

I was floored (and moved) by that speech. A successful mainstream American politician, in the heat of a tough campaign and fighting for his political life, reacts by giving by far the most thoroughly adult, nuanced, historically grounded, wise speech I’ve ever heard from a major candidate? And by the way, on the most explosive and most often demagogued topic in American life? OK, I’m convinced now- this guy is something special.

31

A. Y. Mous 03.19.08 at 10:57 am

Fair enough, mfb. But not bad news at all. If you don’t have ICBMs pointed at me it would be a shame on the whole world to have wasted a full hundred years experimenting with the U. S. of A. Frankenstein, too was born out of good intentions.

My complaint is the half-heartedness and petty shams about the whole enterprise. When you want the world it has to be all-or-none. Power is a zero-sum game. Bush failed, even with his homebase. Obama seems to be a nice guy. So, he is useless. Clinton seems to be yearning for, well, whatever. McCain will be less of a pain than Bush, but (or therefore) less of a success as well.

So. A whole lot of this crap. For nothing? Seems like its going to be a failed experiment. Again. Pity.

32

glenn 03.19.08 at 11:05 am

dsquared: I was responding to Neil. The main differnce between Obama and Clinton is not their positions on issues (which was Neil’s main point: they aren’t that different on the issues), it’s that Obama’s personality and character will allow him , IMHO, to do much more good than she is capable of. I thought this was clear.

33

Matt 03.19.08 at 11:09 am

Dsquared’s comparison with Blair does worry me, and he’s right that “character” and “personality” are often over-emphasized. These are real things to worry about. (For what it’s worth- not much here, I think- I’ve always found Blair to be shockingly poor speaker, though- he sounds like a nit-wit to me, like someone from an old “upper-class twit” sketch.) The alternatives in this case are not so appealing, though, so we must try to get by on what we can.

34

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 11:10 am

McCain will be less of a pain than Bush

Don’t bet on that. His foreign-policy views are of a bellicosity that would make Cheney blush, and they are unaccompanied in his head by even the tiniest sliver of actual information about the world.

35

Mathieu 03.19.08 at 11:20 am

Looking around the Internets the big issue seems to be: the political intent of the speech was to make the bad vibes resulting from Obama’s pastor’s aggressive rhetoric go away. Well, he obviously achieved that objective with the university-educated whities. But what about the “Reagan Democrats”, the white working-class? Will they get it – or prefer McCain, even though it may go against their “class interest”. They will see Obama as just another Brahmin who looks down on them and talks funny, unlike a good old boy like GW Bush or (to a lesser extent) McCain. Plus, he’s associated to black radicals. My only hope is that Obama is so unflappable that he will somehow reassure people like that that he is dependable and serious, a bit like Rudd did in Australia. But then Rudd was not an Aborigine.

36

dsquared 03.19.08 at 11:29 am

I’ve always found Blair to be shockingly poor speaker, though- he sounds like a nit-wit to me, like someone from an old “upper-class twit” sketch

To be honest, Obama sounds to me like a management consultant who’s listened to Eddie Murphy tapes, but he apparently goes down well with his target audience. Blair in his day had an absolutely huge impact, and there are any number of posts hanging round the internet where someone had their mind totally changed (ie: was talked onto the end of the shaft) “because of that speech”.

37

Barry 03.19.08 at 11:40 am

Steve, the way I’d put it is that, plus the fact that (if he were to be elected), it’d be established in his head and in reality that knowing jack sh*t all and screwing up mightily were *good* things for a president of the USA.

38

Doug 03.19.08 at 11:40 am

“a management consultant who’s listened to Eddie Murphy tapes”

Trans: Obama’s too black white black white black white black white black white aw, ffuck it, let’s talk about Wales.

39

Katherine 03.19.08 at 11:50 am

What Novakant said @15. I have been saddened by Hilary’s apparent need to be hawkier than everyone in order to prove she’s not soft. It is tactic that has backfired domestically and internationally, I think.

It may not matter to the American voters much, but electing Obama would signal to the rest of the world that something very important has changed. McCain would just signal more of the disastrous same.

40

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 12:32 pm

#32:

Dsquared’s comparison with Blair does worry me, and he’s right that “character” and “personality” are often over-emphasized. These are real things to worry about.

That’s the built-in evil of a presidential system, and the danger of the tendency to try (as Blair was quite obviously doing) to transform parliamentary systems into American-style leader personality cults. We’re stuck with it because of our benighted worship of a piece of 18th-century parchment, but one would hope that others would try to avoid repeating our mistakes.

#37:

I have been saddened by Hilary’s apparent need to be hawkier than everyone in order to prove she’s not soft.

Would that it were just Hillary. The dominant faction of the Democratic Party is completely sold on this way of “thinking”. Even Obama has had to promise that he’d increase the size of the armed forces, which is insane considering that they need to be cut by at least two-thirds to even begin approaching a size with any rational relationship to actual defense needs (as opposed to imperial pretensions).

41

dsquared 03.19.08 at 1:02 pm

electing Obama would signal to the rest of the world that something very important has changed

which is what we did with Blair and my oh my, weren’t the rest of Europe pissed off when they found out that said signal was not true.

42

Bruce Baugh 03.19.08 at 1:20 pm

One significant difference between Obama and Blair, as I understand it, is that Obama has at this point a substantial history of legislation (both sought and achieved) that actually does rein in executive and legislative power, particularly with simple but effective measures to document just what the authorities are up to. He’s also been good on trying to look ahead and forestall various kinds of trouble before they become crises. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has done the most thorough linking on this, so I’ll just wave at her work.

I admit to not knowing much about Blair’s pre-PM career, and I never rule out the possibility that someone may move another rung up and turn their back on all that’s come before. It happens often enough. But the thing is just that in Obama’s case it would be a turning in a big way. He’s got a real history worth respecting.

The other reason I’m favoring Obama is just that he has a demonstrated gift for getting people out and voting who haven’t before. The US doesn’t suffer from excessive citizen involvement, to put it mildly, and a lot of Americans feel – with depressingly good reason, a lot of the time – that there’s no point in wishing for more responsiveness than they’ve got. I am strongly in favor of getting more of us feeling that we are indeed entitled to expect more than we’re getting now, and working together to push for it. Obama himself is a pretty moderate liberal in actual policy, so nearly as I can tell. But people roused to get some justice may end up taking things quite a bit further than that – maybe even to real health care, for instance. I don’t know where all it might go, but citizen involvement strikes me as a darned good thing, and if Obama’s the one to get it rolling faster, then that’s good with me.

43

Mark Johnston 03.19.08 at 1:23 pm

Jesus Christ, dsquared, don’t be the miserable Blair-traumatised pom that reacts to any rhetorically gifted progressive politician like a Vietnam vet to a helicopter. We got enough of that flash back weirdness last year with Rudd, and he’s not that rhetorically gifted (well, relative to Obama – Rudd might equal Blair).

44

richard 03.19.08 at 1:23 pm

I’m with dsquared on the Blair comparison… on the other hand, thinking like that really does never change anything. Enjoy your adventurous expectancy and, if he wins, some euphoria. The bump’s bad, but not as bad as never seeing the view from the top.

If there’s really an uncloseabe gap, I don’t think you can expect Obama to “bridge it,” but if he’s half as smart as his speeches suggest then he might be able to keep attention on actually solveable issues for a while.

I think the back-room deals will be his undoing, and mostly because he’s not, AFAICT, a member of the right clubs.

Yes. The US is a monarchy, and better at preaching enlightenment than delivering it. Always has been. But even monarchies have complex power structures. Given this fact, the monarch might as well look good, and can sometimes appeal directly to the people over the heads of his courtiers. Bush routinely tries to do this, and has been failing more and more as time goes on. Obama seems quite a bit better at it, perhaps because (counter the Bush strategy) he doesn’t insult his audience’s intelligence.

45

Phil 03.19.08 at 1:24 pm

When making comparisons between Blair and Obama, it is important to rember that he would only be in for 2 terms. Blair actually did some good in his first term.

46

Bruce Baugh 03.19.08 at 1:38 pm

Oh, missing from #40: I don’t think the Democrats will get 60 votes in the Senate, particularly not 60 reliably not Republican in drag votes. Which means that practical response to the country’s big, huge, growing needs is largely going to be screwed up one side and down the other. In light of that, I’m looking for a chief executive who can at least do something about the rule of law and general administrative competence, and who isn’t an enthusiastic warmonger, and like that. I would probably think less of Obama if I thought a serious liberal agenda had the slightest chance in Congress; much of the preceding comment assumes that it does not. I would be happy to be wrong about it, and to take up the burden of much more serious pressuring on both legislators and the executive to use the opportunity well.

47

Henry 03.19.08 at 1:39 pm

dsquared – could well be that I’m setting meself up for a disappointment, but fwiw I was never too keen on Blair (seemed a bit smarmy; I had much preferred John Smith), and when he won I was very happy but in an ‘anyone has to be much better than this shower’ kind of way. What convinced me about this speech wasn’t the personality or whatever, which he seemed to have deliberately dialed down – we didn’t get any of the usual preacher cadences. It was that it was an incredibly risky speech, bluntly addressing a bunch of topics that US politicians don’t usually take on head on, but that need to be taken on. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that Blair made any speeches like that; my perhaps unfair impression is that he was focus-grouped to death since the beginning. My creeping worry about Obama had always been that he would turn out to be a cautious incrementalist in practice – not only has my Bayesian estimation that we are in that state of the world gone way down, but I actually think that this speech on its own has a decent chance of changing the way that politics get debated in this country. American politicians’ speeches usually are pabulum, even more than most politicians’ speeches are; this wasn’t, and was quite uncompromising in talking about some of the lousier aspects of the US experience. So not so much the oratory or the personality (although the oratorical skills surely help him as a politician), as the costly signalling.

48

A. Y. Mous 03.19.08 at 1:44 pm

I have time and I’ve spent the last few hours reading/listening/watching his campaign (Yes. That speech was what made me interested. As I said, a nice speech). A very interesting gentleman. Respect, dude. Respect.

But he seems to have made it clear that he truly believs that winning is beneath him. Can this work? I fail to see the American citizenry (I am told that there are some power brokers called “super delegates” who are the deciders of Obama’s fate. Still. The general election victory for the democrats is anyway decided.) actually comprehending that sentiment. And crucially, the cynical gentry that do understand, are of the kind that overthink and would label him as “coward cowering under magnanimity”, which is what some posts in this thread suggest.

Simple guys you grok. Simpletons you prefer. Complicated real-politicking dealmakers you kneel before. But genuine good men?

49

not even an MBA 03.19.08 at 1:55 pm

Consider, Obama’s the front-runner with the lead in both popular vote and delegates. What speech do you think the pundits/pollsters/strategists/focus group wanted him to deliver? Certainly not the one he gave.
If you’re one of the many who have been disappointed time and again by Democrats without backbone, who only do what the polls say is “safe” then I’m not sure what other sign might catch your attention.

50

Brownie 03.19.08 at 2:39 pm

which is what we did with Blair and my oh my, weren’t the rest of Europe pissed off when they found out that said signal was not true.

When he says “the rest of Europe”, Daniel doesn’t mean to speak for about 25 countries and over a quarter of a billion people; he’s actually referring to the leaders of France and Germany which, unbelievable as it may seem, is not at all the same thing.

51

e julius drivingstorm 03.19.08 at 2:44 pm

It seems Obama is able to surround the issue of racism in America.

If he can do that in Jerusalem, maybe he can make peace. Nobody else can.

52

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 03.19.08 at 2:45 pm

Kevin “Working families working families working families working families working families” Rudd wasn’t that great a speech writer during his election campaign, but then I generally don’t like political speeches. (And if I do, I prefer them printed out.) I wasn’t expecting much from him – someone who would roll back Workchoices, and govern at least a little bit to the left of Howard.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the last few months – ratifying Kyoto, giving a good “Sorry” speech in his first week of parliament, and actually showing an interest in competent government. This was the man who was dubbed “Me too” before the election, for appearing too similar to Howard for his own good. How times have changed.

Dsquared could be right – Obama could be Blair Mk. 2. Or he could be wrong. Not that America has got much of a choice – Clinton is too cynical, McCain is too senile, and I don’t know if it makes much difference – the country is looking at a nasty recession/depression with peak oil mixed in. At least Obama has a chance of turning out ok – unlike the other two.

53

simon 03.19.08 at 2:51 pm

Further to what dsquared said (#21), this is what many people felt about Hitler before that whole totalitarian genocidal maniac thing. Which goes to show, er…

dsquared: I have come to expect better of you than this. Since you profess to be such a skeptic about the relevance of personality judgments, why not engage with what Obama actually *said* (which is what obviously engaged Henry)!

54

SamChevre 03.19.08 at 3:00 pm

Mathieu,

You ask, “What about the Reagan Democrats–the white working-class.”

I’ll just say,first, that this is the first speech I’ve ever heard from a Democrat that acknowledged that the white working-class has legitimate grievances with racial policy. Second, the religious white working-class wasn’t that upset to begin with–the idea that your pastor and fellow congregants might have off-the-wall views is so entirely normal that it was somewhat hard to see what the fuss is about. (For example–I’ve heard a sermon in my church by someone who was once, and may for all I know still be, part of the Army of God–of whom my opinion is, “couldn’t you all find some other side to be on?”) And Jeremiah Wright’s “controversial comments” are common in the black community–I would have been more surprised if he’d said the opposite.

55

dsquared 03.19.08 at 3:22 pm

Jesus Christ, dsquared, don’t be the miserable Blair-traumatised pom that reacts to any rhetorically gifted progressive politician like a Vietnam vet to a helicopter.

“The four most expensive words in the English language – it’s different this time” – Sir John Templeton.

Henry said:

fwiw I was never too keen on Blair

‘course you weren’t. You’re an Irishman living in America – you had perspective on him. I, on the other hand, was fucking dippy over him, as were all my mates, as was my Old Labour family, although about 75% of them will flat out deny it if you ask them today (people also appear to have a lot of false memories about how they behaved in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana).

I may be wrong, but I don’t think that Blair made any speeches like that; my perhaps unfair impression is that he was focus-grouped to death since the beginning

What about the abolition of Clause 4? And also, you know, I don’t doubt the bloke’s sincerity, but the actual message of that speech was the racial version of the Clause 4 moment – that they way to honour our past struggles and achieve their goals in a modern world, is to basically do what rich white people want.

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Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 4:08 pm

Bruce @ #48- I actually feel sorry for anybody who wins this fall. The “winner” will be able to do nothing except take the initial steps to clean up the enormous pile of crap Bush is leaving behind. And in consequence (since many of those steps will be unpopular) said person is likely to be a one-termer. I actually worry that Obama would be wasted in this situation- even if he is a real progressive (and I don’t actually think he is- just a good guy, which by itself is definitely a hell of an improvement, though) he won’t be able to DO anything progressive. I’d almost rather save him for a day when progress rather than just damage control might again be possible. The hell of that though is that long-serving Democratic Senators never make good Presidential candidates- they have too long a paper trail for the Fox News slime machine to attack. God our politics are depressing these days. At least Obama provides a momentary breath of fresh air.

57

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 4:11 pm

Second, the religious white working-class wasn’t that upset to begin with—the idea that your pastor and fellow congregants might have off-the-wall views is so entirely normal that it was somewhat hard to see what the fuss is about.

In fact, I’ll bet a lot of moderate white evangelicals– a crucial demographic just now- were FAVORABLY impressed by the fact that he wouldn’t just throw his pastor and church family under the bus.

58

Kevin Donoghue 03.19.08 at 4:23 pm

dsquared,

There is an important difference between Obama and Blair. If Obama gets the job you won’t be able to say he’s “a sparrow sitting on top of an elephant pretending to be giving directions.” For better or worse he’ll be the real mahout.

Is there any chance that Mel Brooks will make a movie based on all this? I keep getting reminded of the scene in Blazing Saddles where the good people of Rock Ridge are waiting to welcome the sheriff while the old-timer on the roof, acting as lookout, tries to alert them to the fact that there’s a problem.

59

Jim S. 03.19.08 at 4:25 pm

Wll, n s gld tht nw y r s plsd tht, fr th frst tm, y r thnkng f jnng th cntry tht y hv lvd fr th pst 4 yrs, vry plsntly. n s srry, thgh, tht y thght s lttl f th ppl rnd y ll ths tm.

60

Questioner 03.19.08 at 4:35 pm

For those familiar with British and Irish politics, where (from what I would guess) the politicians are much better speakers and arguers than they are in the US, how good is Obama as a speaker relative to them? dsquared has already expressed his low opinion of Obama’s speaking skills (at least, that’s what I got from his comment about comparing him to a management consult who listens to Eddie Murphy–maybe dsquared is really high on management consultants, though?); what do others think?

61

Maria 03.19.08 at 4:37 pm

Jim, if you had the slightest clue about the legal and daily realities of immigrating to this country, you might also realise how clodden, ignorant and obnoxious that comment is.

62

someguy 03.19.08 at 4:47 pm

Henry,

Why after that speech? I can understand being inspired by Obama but why after that speech?

Did we read the same speech?

As you note the speech was primarily about race.

The ideas Obama presented about race in that speech are fundamentally conservative. Not Republican or right wing but conservative in a philosophical sense.

Obama removes racism from the mortal sin column and places it in the venial column.

Belief in racist stereotypes and racist rhetoric are no longer defining characteristics.

So a long time ago WFB spouted some racist rhetoric and the Reverend Wright very recently used racist rhetoric but that doesn’t define them. After all they were and are products of their times. How we treat other individuals is what matters. The decency and charity we daily show other people is far more important than any peculiar notions we hold about race.

That conservative message about race is what inspired you to think about becoming a citizen?

Or did you hear something else?

63

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 4:50 pm

Having dealt with the immigration a-holes years ago with respect to my foreign-born (now ex) spouse, I can only add an “amen” to Maria’s comment. And I understand things have only gotten worse since then.

64

engels 03.19.08 at 4:51 pm

Hearing Obama speak made me feel for the first time that I genuinely want to become a citizen of this country and a part of the larger project that he talked about

Don’t worry, if the gushing enthusiasm of this post is anything to go by you are already 90% yank… :)

65

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 4:52 pm

One step at a time, someguy. I certainly hope the post-racial future will arrive someday, but it’s still a hell of a long way off and I definitely don’t expect to see it in my lifetime. You’ve got to address people where they are now if you want to make any progress towards it.

66

Kevin Donoghue 03.19.08 at 5:02 pm

For those familiar with British and Irish politics, where (from what I would guess) the politicians are much better speakers and arguers than they are in the US, how good is Obama as a speaker relative to them?

The quality varies, but I can’t think of any prominent politician in Britain or Ireland today who is in Obama’s league. OTOH it would be hard to find anyone quite as bad as Bush, even on a town council. But a parliamentary system makes a real difference when it comes to debate – if America had something equivalent to prime minister’s question-time we might all have been spared Bush.

67

Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 5:03 pm

But a parliamentary system makes a real difference when it comes to debate – if America had something equivalent to prime minister’s question-time we might all have been spared Bush.

Even if he’d somehow gotten in it would have provided a lot of entertainment!

68

richard 03.19.08 at 5:33 pm

Jim: is the figleaf use of “one” there supposed to echo some twitch of British English? The trouble is, it only works for the royal family and radio broadcasts from the 20s and 30s, and not so well in any era for the Irish. You can still get a smirk out of “innit” among those who traveled to the UK after 1970, though, if that’s what you’re after. “Begorra” may be more your line.

Changing citizenship is not easy, and often not desirable. You also can’t do it until you’ve held a green card for, I think, 10 years. God knows, I wanted to head ‘back home’ at times for the first 8 years I lived here, and not always because of the actions of the INS/DHS.

69

Sortition 03.19.08 at 6:13 pm

It appears that the Obama personality cult has made more gains among the intellectual elite. Finally we have a credible candidate of our intellectual caliber. JFK is back – and this time, he’s black.

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Matt 03.19.08 at 6:15 pm

Jim’s remark was clearly silly, at best, but to clear up confusion you can apply for citizenship after 5 years of legal permanent resident (green card) status in most cases and 3 years if your LPR status is via marriage. Nowadays it often takes up to a year or more for the citizenship process to grind forward. Most LPRs don’t naturalize until well after they are eligible, and it’s certainly far from obvious that even all who are eligible ought to want to since the reasons for living in a country other than one’s own are so various.

71

richard 03.19.08 at 6:30 pm

Matt: my mistake. I last looked at this issue some years ago.

72

Dan Hardie 03.19.08 at 6:35 pm

Dsquared says ‘further to which, Henry, mate, this is what we all thought about Blair in 1997 and look how that turned out.’

It’s not how I ever felt about Blair, at least not after he became Labour leader. The rhetoric was just so weird from the get-go, the vapourings of a man not all that connected to reality:

‘A hundred days of New Labour for a thousand years’- dear God.

‘Britain is a young country’. Sure, we industrialised last week, invented Common Law a few months ago, and will hold our first Parliament tomorrow. No problem with an ageing population, either.

‘We are the first generation that has never had to think about going to war’. Had he been asleep while the Gulf and Bosnian conflicts were on? And of course, if you’ve ignored the previous wars in your lifetime, your judgement is likely to be pretty screwy when you need to make a decision about war yourself.

‘My priorities are education, education and education’, because of course every Government can just ignore those other priorities that pop up from time to time. The man was a dangerous fool from the start.

There’s a certain amount of vacuity in Obama’s speeches, sure, but I rather like a guy who said, *when it mattered* before the invasion, that he opposed dumb wars like Iraq. Simple, plain, right. Show me a Blair speech from his period as Leader of the Opposition, or his early years as PM, which had those qualities.

73

Chris Brooke 03.19.08 at 6:41 pm

And, from the 1997 election manifesto:

“New Labour is the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole.”

74

James 03.19.08 at 6:41 pm

Good oratory is decidedly not a feature of Irish politics I’m afraid.

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dsquared 03.19.08 at 7:18 pm

Show me a Blair speech from his period as Leader of the Opposition, or his early years as PM, which had those qualities

Getting rid of Clause 4 wasn’t nothing.

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Henry 03.19.08 at 8:45 pm

‘course you weren’t. You’re an Irishman living in America – you had perspective on him. I, on the other hand, was fucking dippy over him

I was in Italy at the time, but socializing a lot with UK ex-pats – dunno what that did to my perspective for good or bad. It did mean some good drinking games on the election night though, at least at the beginning – after a while there were just too many Tories going down for any sane person who wanted to have a liver the following morning to keep up. My memory, clouded as it is, was that where things really went to hell was when Michael Portillo conceded; everything after that point is very blurry indeed.

As for the Clause 4 thing (also someguy’s) – I’m just not seeing it there. I’ve no illusions that he’s going to be a raving social democrat, but I think he could do good stuff on social protection issues (mandate aside), and his stuff on race seemed completely fine to me and not at all weak-kneed.

77

dsquared 03.19.08 at 9:05 pm

his stuff on race seemed completely fine to me and not at all weak-kneed

but it’s all chat, isn’t it? Blair was fantastic at this stuff – I for one honestly believed that “tough on the causes of crime” meant anything at all, and I swear that this was not the naivety of youth, nor was I materially less cynical than I am now. He’s effectively saying that “I acknowledge that there is a problem, and will do unspecific things to solve it, mainly based on the status quo now”.

One of the first posts on this blog was on factive uses. All politicians are bad at them, but Obama and Blair are past masters – they say they will “ensure fairness in the criminal justice system” (which is the keystone of any racial policy in America; if you don’t tackle differential imprisonment rates, nothing else is going to work), but “ensure” is just a sucess-word and Hope, however audacious, ain’t a plan.

78

dsquared 03.19.08 at 9:14 pm

Oh god it’s all coming back now “a foreign policy with an ethical dimension”, how we lapped it up. Thank Christ the internet didn’t exist in 1997[1] or it would be chock full of me furiously jerking away over all this sort of thing. I even considered joining the fucking Fabians, thank christ I pulled back from the brink of that one.

[1]yes yes blah blah, well it didn’t for normal people you bloody geeks.

79

novakant 03.19.08 at 9:15 pm

that they way to honour our past struggles and achieve their goals in a modern world, is to basically do what rich white people want.

So he isn’t Malcolm X and therefore Tony Blair?

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

Sounds more like Rorty to me.

80

richard 03.19.08 at 9:27 pm

wait – dsquared, are you sighing ostentatiously and displaying you jaded skepticism?

81

dsquared 03.19.08 at 10:11 pm

more or less yeah, but I’m not an academic.

82

Mathieu 03.19.08 at 10:31 pm

Samchevre,

I hope you’re right about poor whites liking the fact that Obama supported his preacher. But will that be enough to bridge the class / racial divide? Also, recognising that poor whites have legitimate concerns about inequality as well as poor blacks does not mean that they will hear the message.

Previously Republicans have been successful in shifting the topic from economic domination to cultural domination; poor whites could feel they were getting back at cultural elites by rejecting someone like Gore or Kerry and embracing “someone you would like to have a beer with” (plus GW Bush was an upstanding born-again christian unlike the adulterous Clinton).

If Obama’s attempt to universalise his christian morality can connect with poor whites, and if he can hammer through the media an economic message which criticises the excesses of corporations this might constitute a coherent “frame” that poor whites will feel comfortable supporting.

83

Scott Hughes 03.19.08 at 11:01 pm

I’m not Obama crazy and I’m not going to vote for him. (I don’t vote.) But something about that speech is amazing. It just feels so real, I guess.

84

lemuel pitkin 03.19.08 at 11:01 pm

Thank Christ the internet didn’t exist in 1997 … well it didn’t for normal people you bloody geeks

And yet I clearly remember enjoying posts from a certain Daniel Davies on various email lists well before then. LBO-Talk only started up in May 1998, but you were on PEN-L and various others before that. Perhaps we should take a stroll through the archives….

85

lemuel pitkin 03.19.08 at 11:17 pm

So the eariest evidence on dsquared’s views on Blair I can find in an admittedly brief search is this 1999 reference to

a fairly tiresome think-tank we have which keeps coming out with vaguely techno-leftist working papers beloved of the Blair lot. They seem to basically permute the words “community” “social”, “enterprise” “change” “internet” “future” and “society”.

… which sounds pretty indistinguishable from the 2008 vintage. So on this exceedingly tenuous thread I’ll hang the suggestion that perhaps Farrell:Obama:2008::Davies:Blair:1997 is getting a bit exaggerated in retrospect.

86

Dan Hardie 03.19.08 at 11:18 pm

No, getting rid of Clause Four really was nothing: the chance that any Labour Government elected in the 1990s was going to implement Clause Four, be it led by John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or any candidate the party might conceivably elect, was zero. Ditto the chance of the Labour Party refusing to ditch it and thus gifting their hate figure John Major a ‘Labour split’. Above all, realising that the nationalisation of everything a) wasn’t possible and b) wouldn’t achieve anything worthwhile had been realised by anyone with half a brain years before: rejecting Clause Four really didn’t mean that you had any great understanding of what social democratic policy should be.

Blair, Campbell and Mandelson, however, presented the Clause Four decision as a mixture of Churchill’s 1940 speeches and the bolder moves of the Attlee Government, and a credulous media lapped it up. Obama is not perfect, but he got Iraq right when most everybody else got it wrong.

Second Blair-Obama difference: Blair was always about the professionalisation of politics, elections in which the most important people were the media advisers: and in his first two elections, turnout fell to a level not seen except in 1918, when much of the electorate was still in Flanders. Obama has the slick media people but- like Howard Dean, and unlike Blair or the Clintons- his strategy is about upping turnout and increasing grassroots involvement. If that does succeed, it becomes a force for change in its own right: just as the reinvigoration of the Democratic Party after FDR’s first victory led to a great many things that Roosevelt himself did not initiate.

87

dsquared 03.19.08 at 11:55 pm

88: it’s a filthy lie I tell you. It seems like I’ve been around for ever to me too, but in fact I did not have an internet connection until 1998, when I acquired one courtesy of the LBS, and didn’t have a reliable one at home or work until a year later. My Blair disillusion set in pretty quickly (basically when he fucking sold Bernie Ecclestone an exemption from a tobacco advertising ban, which was like one fucking week after we elected him, but pre-97 it was pretty fucking intense). The thinktank in question was IIRC Demos, and ten years after the fact, I think it is safe to reveal that the main source of my animus against them was not so much world-weary cynicism about the New Labour project but a) a general dislike of the Will Hutton-era Observer, which could not fucking stop giving them column space, and b) one of their researchers was an ex-boyfriend of my girlfriend of the time.

88

dsquared 03.20.08 at 12:11 am

90:hmm, I don’t agree with this version of history

No, getting rid of Clause Four really was nothing: the chance that any Labour Government elected in the 1990s was going to implement Clause Four, be it led by John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or any candidate the party might conceivably elect, was zero.

After fifty years with no real success, the writing was on the wall for it, agreed.

Ditto the chance of the Labour Party refusing to ditch it and thus gifting their hate figure John Major a ‘Labour split’.

Absolutely disagree. Blair took a genuine risk on this one, as evidence for which I advance the fact that ten years later he still felt enough of a debt of honour to John Prescott for the famously logorrheaic conference speech to not sack him despite manifest incompetence.

Above all, realising that the nationalisation of everything a) wasn’t possible and b) wouldn’t achieve anything worthwhile had been realised by anyone with half a brain years before: rejecting Clause Four really didn’t mean that you had any great understanding of what social democratic policy should be.

Oh tee oh aitch, it was actually a major and substantial change to the constitution of an actual political party, while Obama’s call on Iraq – while he was totally correct on it, was a more or less consequence-free act by a guy who wasn’t even a Senator at the time. So you pay your money and you take your choice. And the “Clause Four Moment” wasn’t just important because of getting rid of Clause Four – it was the big symbolic break with the socialist left (and thereby with the industrial North of England) and was recognised to be such at the time. The one thing I will ever give Blair credit for (and I still suspect it was more Brown/Balls) is jumping on the “Cool Britannia” bandwagon and thereby being the first UK prime minister to recognise the importance of the creative industries which are the UK’s only genuinely world-leading sector.

Blair was always about the professionalisation of politics, elections in which the most important people were the media advisers: and in his first two elections, turnout fell to a level not seen except in 1918, when much of the electorate was still in Flanders

Turnout fell but the number of Labour votes (and party membership) was up 16% in 1997 versus 1992 – the main reason for low turnout was the total demoralisation of the Tories. This was also the time when Blair was claiming, and people were believing him, that Labour would have a million members in short order.

If that does succeed, it becomes a force for change in its own right: just as the reinvigoration of the Democratic Party after FDR’s first victory led to a great many things that Roosevelt himself did not initiate.

Forecasting the future is always a mug’s game but I don’t think my analogy breaks down on this point at all – this is exactly the reinvigoation of the Labour Party that Blair thought that he was going to carry through with his 500,000 new members that didn’t show up.

phoee, by the way, reduced to having to moderate my own posts. that’s the price of being a multiple reply nutter I suppose.

89

Danny Yee 03.20.08 at 12:13 am

The idea of a US president who can speak Indonesian is tremendously appealing!

90

Daniel 03.20.08 at 12:29 am

by the way I am such a [expletive deleted – I do seem to be swearing a lot at the moment don’t I? – dd] geek that I have just checked that 1923 and 1935 both had slightly lower turnouts than 1997, a point of no materiality at all and barely marginal interest even to myself.

91

sm 03.20.08 at 12:45 am

93: Indeed, a president who can speak coherently in any language!

How about one who usually speaks the truth!

92

e julius drivingstorm 03.20.08 at 12:58 am

@93 I see what you mean. CIA factbook says there are 200 million Muslims in your front yard.

93

NPTO 03.20.08 at 1:13 am

I liked something about the speech that may not go as well with other people: I liked the fact that he disowned the ideas expressed by Wright (as he should), but refused to offend Wright, or to totally disengage from him.

People who really struggle for moderation and common sense should not be asked to cut all ties with the extremes of the spectrum (leaving aside the nutjobs): they are the ones that must be moved. And these people, misguided as they may be, are often the guys who inspire people to go into politics (or, in this case, into church) in the first place.

94

Mrs Tilton 03.20.08 at 1:38 am

I do actually have a fair bit of sympathy for Daniel’s view here. Because I well remember when Blair ousted that woman, and I was in the throes of ecstasy in a very real and religious sense the night, and in fuckin heaven for days thereafter; and I’m not even British.

But Templeton is going to be wrong one of these days, and it might as well be now.

95

lemuel pitkin 03.20.08 at 5:33 am

when Blair ousted that woman

Sorry, which woman?

96

nick s 03.20.08 at 5:39 am

The Blair comparison’s not a surprise, and I’m sure it’s crossed the mind of every British expat, or anyone who remembers 1997. As mentioned here before, I’ve had the ‘just what’s all the fuss about?’ conversation a few times with friends back home. And like dsquared, I look back on Up For Portillo Night with some ruefulness, not least because I may have put money indirectly into Oliver Kamm’s hands.

(I have thought for a while that 2004 was quite like 1992 in Britain — a poison chalice election, as Robert Harris put it at the time — and I’ve seen nothing to convince me otherwise.)

But presidential elections are different from British general elections, no matter how Blair tried to president it up: James Bryce was right a century ago to say that they reward mediocrity and inexperience, because the experienced, talented politician has generally made too many enemies to be elected. The other side of that coin is that Obama hasn’t been in the Senate long enough to go stale.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you should flinch from idealism just because you got conned by the last glib bastard. And as down & out @54 says, it’s not as if there’s much choice here. You just take that once-bitten mindfulness and don’t make excuses on Mr Idealism’s behalf.

Also: Obama uses verbs.

(Seriously though, you have to have lived in the US for the past four years, not just looked from afar, to appreciate just how fucking wearying it is to be presented with Bush’s Chauncey Gardner act every damn day.)

I well remember when Blair ousted that woman

That’s not a nice way to describe John Major. (The ‘Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead’ moment, and the ‘getting pissed after the ’92 election’, were the two big political memories of sixth form.)

Changing citizenship is not easy, and often not desirable.

Oh, yes. It took Christopher Hitchens about three years, after decades as a permanent resident, and there was an incentive for the USCIS to not put him through the usual wringer. But thanks, trollboy, for showing how most Americans think their immigration system works.

97

Alex 03.20.08 at 9:58 am

Regarding Blair:Obama comparisons, there is a huge distinction that is being skimmed over here – Blair was the absolute and total establishment candidate. After Brown stepped aside, there wasn’t any meaningful choice at all; you had to like him or lump him. In a sense we haven’t actually *chosen* a PM since Thatcher.

In a sense, also, Blair:Clinton. Hyper-centrist, hyper-professional, liberal-hawkish, surrounded by maddeningly annoying media-pols. (Mark Penn = Philip Gould.)

98

Mrs Tilton 03.20.08 at 10:29 am

@98,99,

your comments (“who was that woman?”) have, of course, the trivial virtue of being factually correct.

Be that as it may, Major always struck me as an empty shell, an animated stick figure, during whose unhappy tenure the malevolent spirit of his predecessor still stalked the corridors, quarens quem devoret. (I imagine Major thought the same). And Labour’s first triumph under Blair felt to me like an exorcism. Her own party knifed her, but it took that election to put a stake through her heart.

Perhaps that may explain my remark. Also, it was late, I’d been out at a work-related function, and drink may have been taken.

99

almostinfamous 03.20.08 at 10:33 am

no, obama is definitely http://whoisioz.blogspot.com/2008/03/obamaipac.htmlnot worth wetting your pants over

100

thompsaj 03.20.08 at 10:50 am

what are you talking about?

101

Brownie 03.20.08 at 10:51 am

Daniel is absolutely right on Clause 4. Without Prescott’s intervention, it is not only conceivable but probable that conference would have voted to retain Clause 4. This may not have smothered the new Labour project at birth as such, but it would have severely retarded its emergence as a genuine political superpower.

102

Daniel 03.20.08 at 12:03 pm

gosh, I must be wrong then.

103

SG 03.20.08 at 12:06 pm

Blair ousted Daniel Davies girlfriend? No wonder Daniel hates him.

dsquared, look to Kevin Rudd for the opposite feeling to that you have from Blair – everyone expected a real case of tweedle dumber, but instead we were pleasantly surprised to get someone who seems to actually care a bit. Setting one’s sights low helps.

On the topic of good speakers in the parliamentary system, Australia had Hawke and Keating. Not only were the set pieces beautiful (Redfern park, anyone?) but I have seen Hawke give speeches he has written himself, and even as a doddery old fart he is great. And Keating in parliament off the cuff was splendid. “Get a job!” indeed. “Recalcitrants” indeed!

(As a side note, George MacDonald Fraser, whose “Quartered Safe out here” I am now reading, says Churchill, Hitler, Martin Luther King and Scargill are the best speakers. What do the older English duffers here have to say to that?)

104

Alex 03.20.08 at 12:32 pm

Having actually heard Scargill speak, I can assure you he could not only charm the birds out of the trees, but persuade them to go and lynch a cat.

105

SG 03.20.08 at 12:39 pm

you and older English duffer, Alex?

I presume he must have been good, because my entire childhood in England occurred against the backdrop of the miner’s strike. Nobody strikes that long, against such ferocious media attacks, without both a very good reason and some very good encouragement. But I don’t remember anything he said (I bet my forelock-tugging tory working class father turned off the TV whenever Scargill came on).

106

richard 03.20.08 at 1:18 pm

Labour’s first triumph under Blair felt to me like an exorcism.

That’s exactly the ground on which I object to the ousted that woman line though: subsequent actions showed her ghost to be still highly active and if anything, ever more rapacious. Railways? PPIs? It’s like one of those interminable supernatural thrillers where you just keep going over the Psycho curtain moment again and again.

107

Alex 03.20.08 at 1:32 pm

my entire childhood in England occurred against the backdrop of the miner’s strike

Well, it occurred during mine too…I heard Scargill in 1996, just after he started his Socialist Labour outfit. Most of the people I was with were A-level economics kids, so was I; but he still had them cheering and yelling “Yorkshire! Yorkshire!”

It was my first experience of real oratory; I recall him as a tiny man who seemed about to erupt with energy. His dramatic pacing was perfect.

108

Laleh 03.20.08 at 1:34 pm

I actually think that the better comparative case with Obama is not Blair, but JF Kennedy. It so happens that I am not into the Cult of Kennedy. The man coined the word “counterinsurgency”, had that horrendous hawk (and modernization nut) Rostow as his NS advisor, and during his brief tenure was responsible for the Bay of Pigs and a deepening of US hegemonic _and_ coercive power throughout the world.

As a citizen of the US I do see Obama’s attraction, but what worries me at the moment is the extent to which the power of the US, deployed via the gun or hegemonic multilateralism, is shaping the world in ways that are more destructive than the British and French empire’s works put together.

As a citizen of the world, I’d almost rather have the wolf in wolf’s clothing, rather than in the garb of a well-spoken, obviously intelligent, obviously inspiring character.

109

Mrs Tilton 03.20.08 at 2:08 pm

Richard @110,

your point is valid. But I was referring only to how it felt at that magical moment when the Tories became a southern English regional party, not to how things later unfolded. Bliss it was on that day to be alive, and to have a bellyfull of celebratory beer was very heaven.

110

Kevin Donoghue 03.20.08 at 2:15 pm

Laleh,

You have a point there. When Bush won a second term I took solace in the thought that the more he misused America’s power the more rapidly he frittered it away. I’m not saying that’s a good thing on the whole, but it has some good aspects.

Similarly, a McCain presidency might drive Henry back to Ireland where perhaps he can find a way to deal with Bertie Ahern. Americans, I call on you to vote McCain and halt the Euro brain-drain!

111

abb1 03.20.08 at 4:27 pm

Laleh certainly does have a point, but her point is specifically about JFK, who indeed was one of the worst and most dangerous presidents in the recent history. No one knows if Obama would be like JFK or Carter or Clinton or something else. While the system remains the same, the figurehead on top can still make a small but significant difference.

112

Dan Hardie 03.20.08 at 5:33 pm

Dsquared says ‘Absolutely disagree. Blair took a genuine risk on this one (Clause Four), as evidence for which I advance the fact that ten years later he still felt enough of a debt of honour to John Prescott for the famously logorrheaic conference speech to not sack him despite manifest incompetence.’

Sorry, but you are entirely wrong on the facts. The famously logorrheaic conference speech that John Prescott made in defence of a Labour leader about to lose a vote on a major motion was when he came to John Smith’s aid on One Member One Vote, in 1993. Margaret Beckett, then Smith’s Deputy Leader, actually refused to support him and there was a real chance that he would lose the vote and his job.

Prescott supported Blair on Clause Four but there was no big conference showdown, no fighting speeches. Plenty of evidence, but try reading this contemporaneous Guardian piece, by Michael White: ‘Tony Blair seemed likely last night to pull off the most sensational political coup for a generation as the Labour conference embraced his unexpected call for an overhaul of the party’s time-honoured aims and objectives – including the controversial Clause Four commitment to nationalisation.
If the initial response of most MPs, trade union leaders and delegates is confirmed – and opposition to the move confined to the hard left – a draft which would revise Labour’s 1918 constitution could be ready by December and put to next year’s party conference after widespread consultation…
‘A measure of the conference’s acceptance of Mr Blair’s calculation came last night when the traditional Tribune Rally passed off with scarcely a mention of Clause Four and no rhetoric of betrayal.’

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engels 03.20.08 at 5:47 pm

You hear a lot of guff in politicians’ speeches about how great America is; Obama seemed to me to be challenging America to be great, which is a very different and much riskier thing, as well as something I find much more compelling and attractive.

Count me as one of those who would be happier if America didn’t even challenge itself to be great, but just, let’s say, good enough, or adequate (that is to say, not positively destructive, malevolent or disastrous, as, in point of fact, it has been for many of the people of the world, including a lot of Americans, for much of the last 8 years).
That is roughly speaking what most of the developed world has been aiming at for the last half century and although I can’t say it has exactly been wonderful so far it has mostly been a lot better than the recurring catastrophic shitstorms that have been unleashed on the world by dewy eyed American liberals of one stripe or another (and their counterparts in other countries) in the name of national greatness or even aspiring to greatness.

America isn’t great, never was and never will be (and nor is any other country). Please just get over it, for everyone’s sake.

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lemuel pitkin 03.20.08 at 8:37 pm

Engels for President!

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Planeshift 03.21.08 at 2:04 am

Supporting Obama, or Blair in 97, seems to me to be like dating a beautiful women who has a psychological flaw. You know it’s going to end in tears with you being hurt, making a fool of yourself and leaving you depressed, but you go ahead and sleep with her anyway, enjoying it while it lasts. And the longer you’ve been without a women before she comes along the more emotional investment you throw at it and the more you blindly follow your hormones.
The Bush years have left us all without hope for so long that most of us are now so desperate for just a bit of hope that we flock to the first politician flashing their eyelashes at us.

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Angela Motorman 03.21.08 at 4:05 am

Thanks to all for one of the smartest discussions of this speech I’ve seen anywhere. And OMG I can’t believe I just read a thread where BOTH of my obscure heroes — Theodore Sturgeon and Oysterband — were cited. I’m used to blank stares when I mention either one. Obviously, I need to hang out here more often.

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susan 03.21.08 at 4:51 am

Bad Jim asks: And why, exactly, did the U.S. and the U.K invade Iraq, anyway?

Perhaps the answer can be found here:

Why Did the U.S. Invade Iraq?

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, 18 Mar (IPS) – So why, exactly, did the U.S. invade Iraq five years ago this week?

The official reasons — the threat posed to the U.S. and its allies by Saddam Hussein’s alleged programmes of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the possibility that he would pass along those arms to al Qaeda — have long since been discarded by the overwhelming weight of the evidence, or, more precisely, the lack of evidence that such a threat ever existed.

Liberating Iraq from the tyranny of Hussein’s particularly unforgiving and bloodthirsty version of Ba’athism and thus setting an irresistible precedent that would spread throughout the Arab world — a theme pushed by the administration of President George W. Bush mostly after the invasion, as it became clear that the officials reasons could not be justified — appears to have been the guiding obsession of really only one member of the Bush team, and not a particularly influential one at that: Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Then there’s the theory that Bush — whose enigmatic psychology, particularly his relationship to his father, has already provided grist for several book-publishing mills — wanted to show up his dad for failing to take Baghdad in 1991. Or he sought to ‘finish the job’ that his dad had begun in 1991; and/or avenge his dad for Hussein’s alleged (but highly questionable) assassination attempt against Bush I in Kuwait after the war.

Because Bush was the ultimate ‘Decider’, as he himself has put it, and because no one who ever served at top levels in the administration has ever been able to say precisely when (let alone why) the decision was made to invade Iraq, this explanation cannot be entirely dismissed as an answer.

Then there is the question of oil. Was the administration acting on behalf of an oil industry desperate to get its hands on Mesopotamian oil that had long been denied it as a result of U.N. and unilateral sanctions prohibiting business between U.S. companies and Hussein?

Given both Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s long-standing ties to the industry and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s assertion in his recent memoir that ‘The Iraq war is largely about oil,’ this theory has definite appeal — particularly to those on the left who made ‘No Blood for Oil’ a favourite mantra at anti-war protests in the run-up to the invasion, just as they did — with much greater plausibility — before the 1991 Gulf War.

The problem, however, is that there is little or no evidence that Big Oil, an extremely cautious beast in the global corporate menagerie, favoured a war, particularly one carried out in a way (unilaterally) that risked destabilising the world’s most oil-rich region, especially Saudi Arabia and the emirates.

On the contrary, the Rice University Institute that bears the name of former Secretary of State James Baker — a man who has both represented and embodied Big Oil throughout his long legal career — publicly warned early on that if Bush absolutely, positively had to invade Iraq for whatever reason, he should not even consider it unless two conditions were met: 1) that the action was authorised by the U.N. Security Council; and 2) that nothing whatever be done after the invasion to suggest that the motivation had to do with the acquisition by U.S. oil companies of Iraq’s oil resources.

That is not to say that oil was irrelevant to the administration’s calculations, but perhaps in a different sense than that meant by the ‘No Blood for Oil’ slogan. After all, oil is an absolutely indispensable requirement for running modern economies and militaries. And the invasion was a forceful — indeed, a shock- and awe-some — demonstration to the rest of the world, especially potential strategic rivals like China, Russia, or even the European Union, of Washington’s ability to quickly and effectively conquer and control an oil-rich nation in the heart of the energy-rich Middle East/Gulf region any time it wishes, perhaps persuading those lesser powers that challenging the U.S. could well prove counter-productive to long-term interests, if not their supply of energy in the short term.

Indeed, a demonstration of such power could well be the fastest way to formalise a new international order based on the overwhelming military power of the United States, unequalled at least since the Roman Empire. It would be a ‘unipolar world’ of the kind envisaged by the 1992 draft Defence Planning Guidance (DPG) commissioned by then-Pentagon chief Dick Cheney, overseen by Wolfowitz and Cheney’s future chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and contributed to by future ambassador to ‘liberated’ Afghanistan and Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad and Bush’s deputy national security adviser, J.D. Crouch.

It was that same vision that formed the inspiration for the 27 charter signatories — a coalition of aggressive nationalists, neo-conservatives, and Christian Right leaders that included Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby, Khalilzad, and several other future senior Bush administration national-security officials — of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in 1997. It was the same project that began calling for ‘regime change’ in Iraq in 1998 and that, nine days after the 9/11 attack on New York and the Pentagon, publicly warned that any ‘war on terror’ that excluded Hussein’s elimination would necessarily be incomplete.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Iraq had long been seen by this group, which became empowered first by Bush’s election and then super-charged by 9/11, as the first, easiest and most available step toward achieving a ‘Pax Americana’ that would not only establish the U.S. once and for all as the dominant power in the region, but whose geo-strategic implications for aspiring ‘peer competitors’ would be global in scope.

For the neo-conservative and the Christian Right members of this group, who were its most eager and ubiquitous war boosters, Israel would also be a major beneficiary of an invasion.

According to a 1996 paper drafted by prominent hard-line neo-conservatives — including some, like Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, who would later serve in senior posts in Cheney’s office and the Pentagon in the run-up to the invasion — ousting Hussein and installing a pro-Western leader was the key to destabilising Israel’s Arab enemies and/or bending them to its will. This would permit the Jewish state not only to escape the Oslo peace process, but also to secure as much of the occupied Palestinian (and Syrian) territories as it wished.

Indeed, getting rid of Hussein and occupying Iraq would not only tighten Israel’s hold on Arab territories, in this view; it could also threaten the survival of the Arab and Islamic worlds’ most formidable weapon against Israel — OPEC — by flooding the world market with Iraqi oil and forcing the commodity’s price down to historic lows.

That’s how it looked five years ago anyway.

http://ipsnorthamerica.net/news.php?idnews=1368

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Gus 03.21.08 at 3:10 pm

Don’t do anything you might regret, Henry.

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dsquared 03.24.08 at 10:48 am

Looks like you’re right on the speech Dan, but the “New Labour” transformation – which was the battle finally won in the Clause 4 showdown, wasn’t insignificant at all.

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