Taking Obama seriously

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 November 2008

This article was first published on 6 February 2008 and republished on the eve of the US Presidential election that year.

Barack Obama moved in the astonishing month of January 2008 from being an outsider and then a surprise winner of the Iowa caucus to the candidate who could - even in the wake of the intense, knife-edge drama of "super Tuesday", 5 February 2008 - beat Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic Party's nomination for November's presidential election. Obama's ultimate success remains in the balance after the latest stage of an election campaign which - whatever the eventual outcome - he has shaped and transformed. Win or lose, the 46-year-old politician's resonating oratory, his reaching across boundaries and releasing of energies, and - not least - his ability to win votes and states, announce the arrival of something that is more than just individual.

What is this "something", and what does it mean - not just for the United States of America but in and for the wider world? My purpose here is to try to answer this question, rather than add to the cataract of commentary on the campaign itself. In doing so, I'll occasionally quote Barack Obama himself at length. But thanks to the web he is also there to be watched; a key factor in his novel rise to prominence.

A political evolution Anthony Barnett is founder of openDemocracy and the author of many articles on the site, including a weekly "editor's note"s in 2002-04

The super-Tuesday results, in which the Illinois senator clinched victory in a swathe of diverse states, leave the Obama bubble intact. The American economy may be plunging, its military may have been humiliated in Iraq, its political system has still to account for how it could possibly have permitted the Bush-Cheney quasi-coup - but no society on earth can yet match the United States for charisma bubbles. Just take a look at the latest, star-studded "Yes We Can" pro-Obama video, vacuous as only Hollywood can be. Inside the bubble the impacts of whatever flaws that lie ahead to be uncovered are also being puffed out of all proportion by the hyper-effervescence of the man. Whether or not it brings him down, it has to burst. Because this is obvious outside America, it is all too easy to patronise the hype and dismiss the significance of the forces that are now being expressed.

Like many, I did not at first take him seriously. The idea of an "unknown" black rookie senator running for president had fashionable appeal, clearly. But I was not going to fall for it! In any case I have never identified with the office of the US presidency or its incumbents. An institution designed to manage 18th-century problems of state formation, the presidency is now an old-fashioned semi-royalist system, largely captured by special interests, that generates odious media sycophancy. Every four years one has to take an interest in who becomes president for reasons of global political hygiene - just like one has to do one's laundry. But as a repository of hope...?

Thus, when I looked at Obama's second book The Audacity of Hope - evidently contrived to boost his bid for office - I found it dripping with clichés and empty sentences which, like its title, seemed designed to titillate but not to satisfy. I was not surprised and didn't buy it. I watched some of the early "Obama girl" videos and sighed, with a touch of jealousy, at the vacuous energy of the US politico-entertainment system. I learned about his appeals for unity and regarded it as turning triangulation into a circle. If Obama was any good at all, I thought, he should use his platform to ask Al Gore to become president with himself as running-mate, thus giving us a candidate who did beat Bush and will deliver on the environment and give himself some "experience". When he was winning in Iowa I was watching Will Smith in I Am Legend and wrote a blog post asking if Obama could save the world from Thatcherism.

In short, I regarded Barack Obama as representing the complaisant if different-in-appearance continuity of a familiar regime. Despite the stench of dynastic succession (which anyway confirmed my view of the American presidency) I expected Hillary Clinton to win the nomination, while the candidate who set out the domestic issues most candidly, John Edwards, was doomed to be closed down by lack of money and the media (the two being related). Finally - and notwithstanding the openDemocracy columnist Sidney Blumenthal's assurances and John McCain's evident infirmity - I remained unable to shake off the settled belief of many friends that Hillary would then lose the election itself to give the Republicans four more years.

Now, even if Clinton does gain the Democratic nomination, her losing the election itself has been made more likely. To ensure victory over candidate McCain - now far more clearly the decisive Republican frontrunner - she would need to get the nomination overwhelmingly: riding a wave as the first woman to bid for the office of old white men, making herself, with her longstanding commitment to universal healthcare, the torchbearer of change in a country that gave birth to modern feminism. Only such a perception would cover over the other side of, let's call it, the Clinton record.

The challenge of Obama, however has undermined this positioning. If Clinton wins the nomination it will be seen by the media as being thanks to a combination of the machine, the "IOUs" of past organising and interests, the plea of experience and the weird charisma of Bill - and understandable blue-collar caution. For many she will be seen as the conveyer of the dead hand of prerogative and the instrument of disappointment, who crushed the hopes of the young now mobilising in droves for Obama. They, in all likelihood will nurse their wounds, withdraw from the campaign and some may even vote McCain. In this sense - whatever happens now in the wider race for the White House the impact of Obama is already irreversible.

What are his politics?

What are Obama's politics? Perhaps the first thing to note is that his ambition is rooted in his early personal formation. A hilarious spoof video linked to by Andrew Sullivan in which Obama declares as a freshman student at LA Occidental College that he wanted "To be president of the United States" mocks this. "A negro for president of the United States?", concludes the commentary. "Why not? We put a man on the moon." However, there is nothing wrong with young ambition (see the exchange in comment 9 below). What his compelling autobiographical account, Dreams from my Father, published when he was 33, sets out is a personal foundation for a public life.

The politics and appeal of Obama are examined by John K Wilson who was taught by Obama and has written a full-spectrum account of the attacks on his former professor in order to expose and rebut them. His conclusion is that Obama is a "pragmatic progressive" best compared to Ronald Reagan in his cross-party appeal. (Indeed there is already a word for Republican supporters who are his equivalent of the ‘Reagan Democrats' - Obamacans - who now include Susan Eisenhower.)

Michael Tomasky, reviewing The Audacity of Hope in the New York Review of Books in November 2006, may be less of a supporter than Wilson but is more generous in his description of Obama: "He really is not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal. He is in many respects a civic republican - a believer in civic virtue, and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith."

Good faith. The separation of powers set out in the US constitution was created explicitly because human beings could not be trusted to act in "good faith". It generated a high legal culture and civic sense of the public interest. But at the same time its low expectations built in permission for Hobbesian "hard-ball" politics and the pursuit of self-interest which are coded into American political expectations. No one can successfully pursue the first who is not also a master of the second's darker arts. Obama seems to have a natural command of the double-game. He pitches himself as above partisan party politics, but in a consummately political fashion. He once said, "I've become a receptacle for a lot of other people's issues that they need to work out. . . . I've been living with this stuff my whole life". But he also attracts this identification with himself deliberately so that he embodies the national unity many Americans long for.

In an interview with Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, Obama said that American politics has seen enough "either-or" - and that he can shift the paradigm to "both-and". This belief is what led him to undertake "the risks and difficulties and challenges and silliness of a modern presidential campaign."

What might "both-and" mean? For example, "there is a strong values-and-character component to educational achievement. To deny that is to deny reality, and I don't want to cede that reality to conservatives who use it as an excuse to underfund the schools. . . . Sometimes people think that when we talk about values, that somehow that's making a 'lift yourself up by your own bootstraps' argument and letting the larger society off the hook. That's why I always emphasize that we need both individual responsibility and mutual responsibility.... We as a society can take responsibility for creating conditions in which those cultural attributes are enhanced."

In a shrewd report on the candidate then on the campaign trail but before he had declared, Joe Klein tired of his "both... and". The irritated reporter challenged Obama on his evasiveness: "Talk about defensive: this was the first time I had ever seen Obama less than perfectly comfortable. And his discomfort exposed the elaborate intellectual balancing mechanism that he applies to every statement and gesture, to every public moment of his life."

His "balancing" is also Obama's way of managing the recent past. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote about the 1960s: "The victories that the sixties generation brought about - the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties and the healthy willingness to question authority - have made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptions - that quality of trust and fellow feeling - that bring us together as Americans."

He put the same point slightly more personally to Robinson: "We've learned that it was a good thing to break down the gender barriers that were keeping women from fully participating in the society; on the other hand, it turns out that things like marriage and fidelity are actually good things.... In people's day-to-day lives, a lot of these issues have been resolved. Our politics hasn't caught up."

He then went on to describe what is in effect his domestic strategy "I think that there's the possibility - not the certainty, but the possibility - that I can't just win an election but can also transform the country in the process, that the language and the approach I take to politics is sufficiently different that I could bring diverse parts of this country together in a way that hasn't been done in some time, and that bridging those divisions is a critical element in solving problems like health care or energy or education. . . ."

When questioned by Ken Silverstein of Harper's (in an article entitled "Barack Obama Inc") about his links to lobbyists, Obama responded: "Since the founding, the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary. What that means is that for a political leader to get things done, he or she ideally should be ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead. I want to push the envelope but make sure I have enough folks with me that I'm not rendered politically impotent."

A reformist, just as much as a revolutionary, needs agency to drive the change he or she desires. Obama has rejected mobilising folk via partisan "attack politics", in favour of a popular but not populist call to the American public as a whole. This would be wholly implausible were it not for the religious roots of such an appeal - one to which Obama's blackness gives him an unequalled access.

His Christian dimension

While Obama's promise of "transformative" radicalism gains its credentials from his underdog background, the organised, defensive traditionalism of his church espouses (as he puts it) "profoundly conservative values of self-reliance and self-help". The congregation seems to be the heart-beat of his dual appeal to the individual and the society, to togetherness and individual aspiration for improvement. Despite his atheist upbringing, Obama joined the Trinity United Church of Christ as a 25-year-old. As John K Wilson observes, America enjoys "Sunday segregation": "Blacks and whites worship largely in separate congregations". But the music and cadences of the black allegiance to the gospel and its powerful secular rhythms have utterly penetrated the American white experience (if not the Latino). African-Americans, it seems, are coming round to Obama but remain thoughtful; among many whites he is longed for almost hysterically - and it is Reverend Dr Martin Luther King they reach out to, not Malcolm X: the civil-rights movement not the cultural wars.

Barack Obama, ex-president of the Harvard Law Review, can get down and biblical in public. His is not a sectarian Christianity ("I believe there are many paths to the same place"); nor a fundamentalism preparing believers for rapture and the rest for hell. But he can pull out the stops without embarrassment.

Soon after he announced his intention to run for the presidency Obama spoke at the commemoration of the voting-rights march in Selma, Alabama. He compared the veterans of the civil-rights movement to Moses, bringing the people through the desert to the promised land. "I thank the Moses generation; but we've got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross over the river to see the Promised Land." He went on to place himself at the head of the "Joshua generation".

The book of Joshua also provided him with the text for his talk to the packed congregation in Martin Luther's own church in Atlanta, Georgia on "Martin Luther King day" itself, 21 January 2008. How come the walls of Jericho came down? Was it with one or two voices? No, only when everyone cried out - white and black, Jew and Gentile, Muslim and atheist - could they overcome:

"God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram's horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern civil-rights era.... ‘Unity is the great need of the hour' is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome."

You can see here the congregational grounding of Obama's approach. Such an appeal also takes force and urgency in the United States from the price paid (the martyrdom even) by those who have called for unity. A man who lays claim to the tradition of Martin Luther King; who has had the mantle laid upon him of both John and Bobby Kennedy; who even has something of the precision and cadence of John Lennon (if without his bite and irony) - such a man must be enjoying himself. The American secret service will never be forgiven if once more it messes it up. This too is something Obama's appeal offers, the possibility that America will not only put behind it the epoch of impeachments - one grave that prevented an imperial presidency (for a while) and vindicated the constitution; one prurient that shredded the constitution - but also can be returned to the earlier narratives that were assassinated before they could be worked through.

Does he have the experience?

This is all very well, etc, but does he have the experience? John K Wilson lists many of the dismissive attacks on Obama for his lack of the "E" word. The Christian Science Monitor sums them up: "He's too inexperienced to have a long political track record". Others say his advantage is precisely that he has not yet been broken and reined in by the powers of the inner-beltway. Wilson makes the important point that racism has moved on from being crudely indiscriminate: "The ‘liberal' racist doesn't dismiss black people because they are black; he does so because they are ‘unqualified'". Of course, you can actually be unqualified but the warning is well taken. Obama is older than Theodore Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton were when they ran. He has shown the capacity to write an eloquent book to make sense of his background, releasing himself from the confines of identity politics. He has a seven-year record in the Illinois legislature as well as a suggestive arc in the senate. His policies in twenty areas are listed on his website and he has the good judgment to pick people like Samantha Power to advise him. And, for goodness' sake, he is 46.

The better question is not about "experience" but rather whether a man so prone to seeking consensus and appealing to the "good faith" of those on both sides of an argument, can make a clear call when he has to - and the quality of such decisions. Obama faced at least one such moment when as an ambitious, rising politician he placed his future prospects on the line: Iraq.

Today his stand may seem less distinctive. The fact that he opposed the war while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards voted for it (well, not really, they would say) is muddied as Obama now argues that the US cannot withdraw as recklessly as it invaded. But in the atmosphere of October 2002 everything was at stake: Bush was way high in the polls, an atmosphere of intimidation was building, official patriotism was demanding loyalty in the name of the "war on terror". It was in this context that Obama spoke out and put all his prospects for advancement on the line. What is striking is the quality of the language and the cool - and accurate - assessment of long-term consequence:

I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the President today. You want a fight, President Bush? Let's finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.

No one who has staked his career in this way at that time has done nothing. It was a defining moment and he defined himself. This seems to be the quality of judgment that drew Toni Morrison's endorsement. As important for her was Obama's capacity - despite his Ivy League finish - to be a citizen (rather than "one of the boys"). She also sets out a definitive critique of 'lack of experience':

"This is one of those singular moments that nations ignore at their peril. I will not rehearse the multiple crises facing us, but of one thing I am certain: this opportunity for a national evolution (even revolution) will not come again soon, and I am convinced you are the person to capture it....

Nor do I care very much for your race[s]. I would not support you if that was all you had to offer or because it might make me ‘proud'.

In thinking carefully about the strengths of the candidates, I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion: that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don't see in other candidates.
That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.
...Wisdom is a gift; you can't train for it, inherit it, learn it in a class, or earn it in the workplace - that access can foster the acquisition of knowledge, but not wisdom.
When, I wondered, was the last time this country was guided by such a leader? Someone whose moral center was un-embargoed? Someone with courage instead of mere ambition? Someone who truly thinks of his country's citizens as ‘we', not ‘they'? Someone who understands what it will take to help America realize the virtues it fancies about itself, what it desperately needs to become in the world?"

Perhaps the most important part of Morrison's message is the understated opening, her feel that this is a moment of crises coming together and of a chance to start to resolve these before the chasm of violence latent but stirred in America opens up once more. If McCain wins and commits for the long war in the middle east as the economy tumbles... One of the striking things about the Iraq war compared to Vietnam is that opposition to the later took a long time to grow and was fuelled by the draft. Iraq by contrast was greatly opposed before it began but there is as yet no great, autonomous "anti-war movement". If American treasure continues to be poured overseas as job losses mount at home and there is no prospect of an ending because a navy aviator learned adamantine defiance in Hanoi, then once more will the war come home? Will it take a half-Kenyan to stop America becoming another Kenya?

Obama may be studiedly vague but he is also distinctive. He can decide to commit and when he does so, he does it well. His extraordinary and so far consummate campaign for the nomination makes this clear enough. The best image or metaphor for him may be that of a surf-boarder: judging the wave, casting his ride, surfing the forces that project him towards the presidency.

What we see of him is the skill and balance he displays as he is powered by the giant waves now on the rise in the United States. He has already proved himself the master of keeping upright on his narrow board. But what are the forces below the foam?

There are at least three:

* the need for a post-9/11 politics that makes sense to the rest of the world

* the need for a left-of-centre politics that can prevent open domestic conflict in the face of recession and the failures of neo-liberalism

* the need for a politics that can relate to the growing power and energy of the internet and social networking.

The first post-9/11 candidate

The invasion of Iraq was - as John le Carré succinctly described it in openDemocracy - "mad". How can American politics be put back on a saner basis? Only by moving on from talk about "evil". In his new, 2004 preface to his first book - Dreams from My Father - Obama wrote:

"I know, I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago's South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammelled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder - alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware - is inadequate to the task. I know that the hardening of the lines, the embrace of fundamentalism and tribe, dooms us all."

This was his conclusion to a meditation on the nihilism of terrorists. He had already noted that:

"(The) bombs of Al Qaeda have marked, with eerie precision, some of the landscapes of my life - the buildings and roads and faces of Nairobi, Bali, Manhattan; not merely because, as a consequence of 9/11, my name is an irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous republican operatives. But also because the underlying struggle - between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty towards those who are not like us - is the struggle set forth, on a miniature scale in this book."

No other candidate has the resources to address 9/11 in this fashion. It is not just that Obama links the global south to the broken zones of American cities; he also provides a starting-point for an international politics that does not make things worse. Or, at least, might not. There has to be a break from the dangerously childish twaddle of Bush and company asking why they "hate us" and concluding they are "evil". The normalisation of America - an essential theme which Anatol Lieven, Godfrey Hodgson and Tom Nairn have very differently anatomised in openDemocracy - can only begin when it stops being so faux innocent and "surprised" by terrorist attacks upon it. This is not necessarily the work of a new generation, but Hillary Clinton shows all the signs of having conceded the Republican definition of the "security" agenda and has decided that she has to show that the lady is as tough as any of them. This traps her in the paradigm of the "war on terror". No candidate may yet dare to denounce it, but there is a current of recognition that the entire Bush strategy is indeed a folly and needs to be replaced. The starting-point for this is an understanding of the other side which is more than intellectual or rhetorical. Does the American electorate know that their country has really screwed up and needs a new direction? At some level, yes, and Obama seems to be an expression of this.

The first post-communist candidate

From the liberation struggle in Vietnam, to Mao's "cultural revolution", to the Prague spring and its crushing, the emancipation of the late 1960s took place under the shadow of different forms of communist coercion. This marked and polarised the politics of the cultural wars that followed the ‘60s in America. Obama knew those times (he was 28 when the Berlin wall came down), and there is a leftist streak to his career as well as his origins, reflected in his return to community organising after Harvard. But his radicalism is not associated with any threat from an organised left anywhere in the world. The Communist international is long dead. The last attempt at influential global agenda-setting on the left was the gurgling sounds of Clinton and Blair seeking the "third way" in expensive hotels.

This makes a candidate who seeks the better government of capitalism a lot less disturbing. At the same time the catastrophe of neo-liberalism and what George Soros has called market fundamentalism is all too evident - not least, or perhaps especially, to those who have been its main beneficiaries and are now desperate for federal assistance. Meanwhile, millions are (and are becoming) poor in America, and the working classes (now called middle-classes) have seen almost no real salary increases while basic costs, especially for medical care and college education, have risen. Few now remember "trickle-down"; but at the birth of neo-liberalism the Anglo-Saxon publics were assured that wealth-creation at the top would generate jobs and the largesse too would, well, trickle down, perhaps even gush a little, and all would benefit from market freedom....

Obama backs capitalism, as how could he not. Wikipedia quotes his view of the economy: "We should be asking ourselves what mix of policies will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility [...] we should be guided by what works." In "Barack Obama Inc", Ken Silverstein charges that Obama supported limiting class actions because of the funding he got from financial interests; he states that Obama "opposed an important amendment, which was defeated, that would have capped credit-card interest rates at 30 percent". Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's notorious chief strategist, has just nailed Obama on the Clinton campaign website for being... in the pay of lobbyists (I guess it takes one to know one). One such creature of DC influence who insisted on staying anonymous, perhaps to inflate his self-importance, assured Silverstein that Obama is "a player".

However, as Sartre might have put it: Barack Obama is in the pay of lobbyists, no doubt about it. But not everyone in the pay of lobbyists is Barack Obama. Along with the fact that he is a successful and acceptable part of a compromised American political system, Obama brings to it a new alliance of forces committed to racial integration, citizenship mobilisation and "widespread economic security" (a formulation careful chosen to be short of universal but nonetheless a challenge, especially when the economy is all too close to a tailspin). The wealthy party inside the Democrats represented by the Kennedys have chosen their man. In an age of pre-emption they have selected their Franklin D Roosevelt before the recession.

Tomorrow the main threat to global interests of the USA will come not from a communism that appeals to the workers of the world but from an authoritarian China now flexing its Olympic muscles and exercising its special international influence from Burma to Sudan. Here again the dumping of Bush-Cheney's rebarbative style and policies and a quick restoration of American soft power looks essential. This can only come from the centre-left. Clinton would qualify were it not for her dynastic baggage and all that that entails. Obama is preferable, embodying a clean break from the disasters and bad faith of 20th-century leftism.

The first internet candidate

Obama is among the first presidential candidates and potential world leaders to have integrated the web into his communications, and he is the first to have done so in a way that reflects and adapts the development of the technology itself: he has integrated social networking into his campaigning. When the internet made its initial, definite impression on a US election in 2004, it was in an insurgent role - when MoveOn polled its members, backed Howard Dean and funding and projected him as a surprise candidate who sharpened Democratic opposition to the Iraq war.

This time the web and online funding have been integral to most campaigns from the start. But Obama also has a natural video presence. As a result his persona as a candidate, his charm, intelligence and novelty, have been transmitted online. The large numbers of young people who have campaigned for him have seen him for themselves: on their computers. The success of an early Obama MySpace site, run by a volunteer, was a harbinger. Today his official Facebook site has 360,000 members (and the unofficial "Barack Obama for President" has nearly 450,000); by contrast, Hillary Clinton's official Facebook site has only 88,000 members (and "STOP Hillary Clinton" has over 750,000). There are sixteen social-network groups plugged into Obama's official site, Hillary's has five. It seems a telling comparison that Facebook's "McCain for President" has just 5,500 members and there seem to be no social-network links on his official site at all.

Obama's stellar presence on the web is supported by his early development of policy for the web, with creative-commons guru Lawrence Lessig as an advisor. Obama's Wikipedia entry reports that he met Google employees in November 2007 and pledged to appoint a chief technology officer to oversee the US government's management of IT resources and promote wider access to government information and decision-making. In reaffirming his commitment to net-neutrality legislation, Obama said that "once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out, and we all lose."

One senses that McCain wouldn't know what he was talking about and Hillary barely so. The web works best when it transforms by reinforcing and enhancing what people already want to do. This makes it open to incorporation by existing brands and companies even when it changes them greatly in the process. But it is very hard for individuals who were fully formed before the web to re-gear their communications. Obama, and his even younger advisors and speechwriters, are internet naturals at ease with its innovations. His website is easy to navigate (apart from the absence of a site search-engine) and itself feels at home with the medium.

All this has left the million-strong MoveOn, now too large to be a pepper group, without an independent role. But as soon as John Edwards dropped out and a clear majority choice was possible, it polled its members. Greg Sargent in Talking Points Memo reported that a MoveOn spokesperson said roughly 300,000 members voted in twenty-four hours (it took three days to reach that number in 2004, with Howard Dean in the mix). On 2 February, MoveOn announced that by a clear 70/30 majority its members had decided that it would campaign for Obama.

If he wins, what will President Obama make of this exceptional force of his web and internet presence? His constant refrain is that "change does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up". Numerous times he has said that he cannot deliver unless the demand is there from below. While this is a wise perception, modest about his own power and inspiring for those to whom it is addressed, it is also a get-out-clause for an Obama presidency. For how can there be pressure from below? And without it, he has already declared, his promises may prove worthless.

There are steps he can take on the ground to encourage "bottom-up" pressure: by taking federal measures to ensure that all citizens have the right to vote and to prevent gerrymandering, not to speak of reforming the electoral college to prevent the scandal of 2000 from ever happening again. But a new president with the Obama team's know-how could well enable participation and organisation online. This, of course, is certain to generate its own energy and autonomy, unconstrained by beltway special interests. So there is now a way of putting pressure on Washington "from below". Obama should be warned as well as congratulated: those who live by the web can die by it.

The power of words

These three shaping forces of the Obama wave do not take away from him two intrinsic factors that are greatly in his favour: he is young and he was right on the war, the key issue of the decade. In itself there is nothing intrinsically positive about being young in politics; it depends on the times. But this is a time when a generational change is to be welcomed.

Take the point of view of an American who is now 30 years old - who was therefore born as the forces of neo-liberalism and Iranian fundamentalism flexed their muscles and Pol Pot ruled Cambodia. Such a person grew up through the Bill Clinton and George W Bush presidencies. How could she or he not see both presidents, whatever their differences, as two baby-boomers each of whom dodged the draft to stay out of Vietnam, took drugs, and are in denial about both these obviously important facts? If we are to "restore trust" and clean up politics, it is obvious where to start. Call me a traitor to my generation, but I say 'clean out the stables'. Put it this way in terms of being young and right about the war. If Obama makes it to the White House it will reveal Tony Blair for what he is: old and wrong.

To win, Obama has to persuade as many American voters of Blair's age group as he can. At the end of January, I was taken to a small Obama meeting in a downtown pay-bar in Manhattan. It was a political gathering not a fundraiser. Its organiser was a Chinese-American, a young mother who used to drink in the bar before she had her child. The main speaker was an experienced black organiser from Unite Here, the garment and hotel workers union. The two volunteers from the Obama campaign were young white women taking time out from college. It was an evenly mixed (black and white), largely middle-aged gathering; perhaps seventy people came and went. Obama's speech at the Apollo in Harlem was screened at the end. The mood was cheerful and thoughtful. Edwards had been the preferred candidate for Unite Here but he wasn't going to win and Obama "gave straight answers". But there was still disbelief that he might succeed.

It was only a few days after Bill had played the race card and the Clintons suffered what may yet prove to be a deciding revulsion from their cause among many Democrats. But the blue-collar working families look back to the Clinton years, and in the face of an economic downturn that many of them regard as much more important than Iraq they are sticking with Hillary, in her New York bastion and elsewhere. Obama's many victories on "super Tuesday" notwithstanding, winning the support of such citizens by the millions is hard work. If it can happen at all, and so far as the Democratic primaries are concerned, Obama may not have the time he needs.

Three ways to see him

There are at least three ways of looking at Obama. The first is to see him as a mere product of the American system, shallow window-dressing for its global pretensions and further evidence of the transformation of its politics into entertainment. A second is to say, "What a capitalism!" If it can undo racism from the top and select a figure who writes and speaks as well as Obama, this alone deserves a salute for its flexibility and inventiveness. In a more pinched European country these qualities would have excluded him.

There is a third. When the Helsinki agreement affirming human rights and civic freedoms across cold-war boundaries was signed in 1975, neither (post-Nixonite) Washington nor (Brezhnevite) Moscow believed a word of it. But the principles of adherence to human rights it set out were seized upon in Soviet-dominated east-central Europe. The ideals signed up to as "mere" words by the idiot bureaucrats became a means of helping to pull away their power. As Rajeev Bhargava wrote in openDemocracy in 2002 on the importance of India's constitution as "a weapon of security and protection": "Words are not mere ‘pieces of paper'. They become effective when believed in, and powerful when institutionalised and made legitimate." The experience of Europe and India here offers lesson in the way that the fine aspirations that nation-states proclaim can - that's can - be turned against them into demands for delivery of same.

'President Obama', the description still sounds improbable, would confirm the possibility of racial equality in the United States. Economically. it will take a long time to see but there are huge racially inscribed injustices and prejudices to be cleaned up which he could lead. However, my feeling is that he is more the beneficiary of something that is already happening rather than than the architect of its progress.

It is in the international arena that Obama might make an original and significant difference. There have always been two sides to America. From the start there was the law-based, constitutional state of checks and balances and Enlightenment ideals. But this was constructed so as to expand the country and assist it in sweeping away with genocidal lawlessness the peoples of the plains who lived between the thirteen founding states and the Pacific. Economic expansion and domination overseas followed in endless wars and expeditions, each accompanied by its equivalent of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Globalisation, if it is to mean anything politically, has to mean the end of this reckless, lawless claim to privilege and Bush's notorious refusal to "do nuance". Bush flouted international law, tortured and imprisoned without trial abroad like the best of them. This has to stop. A president with Obama's international experience and capacity could - that's could - convince the United States of the need to live by its ideals abroad.

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