One thousand three hundred and fifty-four for Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton’s 1,263: at time of writing, that is the current, total delegate count in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination (according to realclearpolitics.com). A few short months ago, the outcome of that primary race seemed a foregone conclusion. With a 20-point lead over her rivals in national polls as recently as last November, Hillary Clinton seemed unstoppable, and Barack Obama was a bright young star in the Democratic firmament playing for futures. He would be their presidential nominee one day, but just not in 2008.
Until recently, conventional wisdom in Washington political circles assumed the Democratic Party would take back the White House in 2008 (as it did the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections of 2006) and that Hillary Clinton would become the first woman to serve in the Oval Office. President Bush had become so fundamentally unpopular that the November vote would be a « repudiation by proxy » of his presidency and his war. Thumbing her nose at recent history, which tends to favour outsiders for the top job, Hillary Clinton would move from senator to president without breaking much of a sweat.
Today, neither of those predictions is certain anymore. Within the Democratic Party, Senator Clinton is in the fight of her life, and the Republicans are enjoying something of a reprieve as a result of Senator John McCain’s reputation as a maverick and his appeal to independents. Recent polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics (RCP) show that not only does Barack Obama enjoy a slim lead over Senator Clinton in national opinion polls, he is also the Democratic candidate best positioned to beat the putative Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona. In fact, according to RCP analysis of recent polling data, Clinton even trails McCain in head-to-head match-ups.
How did the junior senator from Illinois go from a distant second with a promising future to the frontrunner (to the extent that there is one) in the race to become the 44th president of the United States? To be sure, with the exception of John McCain becoming the GOP nominee, no predictions as to the outcomes can be made with any meaningful certainty. With Obama and Clinton each having won only just over half of the delegates needed to win the nomination, no one can know for sure who will be elected to represent the Democratic Party at its August convention in Denver. And with the volatility we have seen recently in national polls, no one can be sure of who will be sworn in as president next January 20. Les jeux, to twist a phrase, sont loin d’être faits.
That said, there is no question that something is going on in this year’s race for the White House, particularly on the Democratic side. All indicators point to the Obama campaign as having « the big mo » over the Clinton machine, to say nothing of fundraising or the size of crowds at campaign rallies:
- 1,354 total delegates to 1,263;
- 1,185 pledged (or elected) delegates to 1,024;
- 10,234,964 votes cast in primaries and caucuses versus 9,324,418 for Clinton (excluding Florida and Michigan, two states whose primaries were ruled out of order by the Democratic National Committee prior to their voting day); and,
- 25 victories in statewide contests to 11.
Only in the category of superdelegates (or automatic delegates) can Clinton claim to have an advantage over her rival — and even that can change. Superdelegates are not tied to a campaign and are free to vote for the candidate of their choice at the Denver convention. They may have pledged their support to her early on, but there is nothing stopping them from casting their ballots in his favour in August — a prospect that may become increasingly likely should he increase his lead in the campaign for pledged delegates.
While the race itself may still be too close to call, there is no question that Barack Obama has shaken American politics out of complacency. American voters are tuning in and speaking out in record numbers. In South Carolina, a so-called red state if there ever was one, the number of votes cast in the democratic primary was double the number of votes cast on the Republican side. The Obama campaign website boasts of having received the financial support of over 450,000 individual donors and is breaking records in dollars raised. Turnout at more than one Obama rally has topped 15,000 people, chanting « Yes we can » — many of them experiencing politics for the first time. Largely due to Obama, the race for the White House is attracting as much attention in 2008 as this year’s edition of American Idol.
North of the border, Canadians, too, have noticed that something is going on in US politics. Political leaders and pundits alike have been commenting on the dynamics of the US campaign and attempting to draw parallels with what is going on in our own politics. What would an Obama victory mean for Canada, in both style and substance? With a minority govern- ment under the constant threat of a non-confidence vote, how would it change our political landscape?
From a policy perspective, it is not a given that an Obama presidency would be good for Canada. The debate thus far has focused on the various candidates’ specific policies regarding the war in Iraq and the slumping economy, but they also have had to make pronouncements on their general approach to foreign policy and international trade.
In his Blueprint for Change: Barack Obama’s Plan for America, Senator Obama marks a clear break with the recent past when it comes to the United States’ relations with the rest of the world. Denouncing the isolationism and the unilateralism that characterized the Bush presidency, Obama advocates a more collaborative approach to international relations — with both individual ally countries and international bodies such as the United Nations and NATO. That stated desire to work within the framework of international organizations will undoubtedly play well with the Canadian electorate. Ever the multilateralists, Canadians will appreciate a US president who shuns going it alone in favour of creating an international consensus for common action.
On international trade, however, the stated objectives of an Obama presidency and the interests of Canadian workers part ways. On page 12 of Blueprint for Change, Obama states his policy in no uncertain terms. « Amend the North American Free Trade Agreement: Obama believes that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers. » More recently, speaking to a crowd of 17,000 in Wisconsin on the night of his crushing victories over Clinton in Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland, Obama made a lengthy reference to NAFTA as having « shipped jobs overseas » and pledged once again to review the accord, as indeed Clinton has also pledged to do — reopening one of the principal legacies of her husband’s presidency.
This new focus on trade and the impact of NAFTA on American jobs can be explained at least in part by the demographic makeup of the Clinton and Obama coalitions. It has been widely reported that while Obama draws his strength from African Americans, young people, white men and highly educated, upwardly mobile « Chardonnay socialists, » Clinton’s support lies with women, Latinos, older voters and blue-collar Democrats. On Tuesday, February 12, during the Potomac primaries, cracks began to show in the Clinton coalition, with Obama making inroads with older, lower-income and Latino voters. Obama’s emphasis since then on the deficiencies of NAFTA and keeping high-pay, good-quality jobs in the United States may well be designed to further erode Clinton’s lead with those groups of voters, who will determine the outcome in the next big prizes, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Regardless of whether the policy is a result of polling, tactics or conviction, it spells bad news for Canadians at a time when our manufacturing sector — particularly in Ontario — is already bearing the brunt of the impact of the downturn in the US economy. We Canadians may hang on his every word and believe his promise for a brighter tomorrow, but we should not — indeed cannot — be blind to the challenge President Obama would pose for the Government of Canada when it comes to securing the continued growth of the Canadian economy and the continued openness of trade on the continent.
Ironically, it is precisely those Canadian voters who stand to lose the most from a renegotiation of NAFTA who seem the most enthusiastic at the prospects of a victory for an Obama-led ticket in November. Even NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose own position on Canadian jobs is virtually irreconcilable with Obama’s proposal (they can’t, after all, both be right about where the good jobs have gone as a result of NAFTA), has been effusive in his praise and has revealed his intention to emulate the senator’s campaign tactics right down to the « audience on all sides » staging that has become standard fare in the US this election year.
From a policy perspective, the critique in Canada of Barack Obama’s campaign thus far (to the extent that there has been a critique) centres on the senator’s protectionist inclination when it comes to the North American economy. In the United States, it has centred on the senator’s lack of definition or detail on most policy issues. Agents of the Clinton campaign have called on the American media to stop giving Obama « a free ride » and challenge him on his policy positions. Some commentators have gone as far as to warn American voters of buyer’s remorse and urged opinion leaders to scrutinize the Obama plan more thoroughly than they have to date.
In reality, there is little chance of Barack Obama getting the keys to the Oval Office without intense scrutiny. Freed from the need to settle the GOP nomination, Senator McCain and the Republican Party will do their utmost to expose any real or perceived weaknesses in Candidate Obama. The media, always more interested in a horse race than in a romp, will be happy to oblige — particularly if end-of-summer polls show a runaway victory for Obama. Should Barack Obama be sworn in as the United States’ first black president next January, he will do so undoubtedly having passed the test.
If one is interested in the impact of Barack Obama on the body politic, however, the debate over his policy credentials is beside the point. Even if Senator Obama fails to win the Democratic nomination, or fails to win the White House, on the grounds that his health care plan is full of holes or his decision to pull out of Iraq as soon as possible is too naive, his contribution to politics is already being felt across the continent. A future President Obama may well be remembered for a policy innovation or a departure from convention on a given file, but Candidate Obama has already changed politics. His value is in the « how » and « why » of politics, not the « what. »
For citizens everywhere, Obama’s success is a victory of meaning and purpose over tactics. Within the Democratic Party, his fresh appeal caused the Clinton strategy — which for most of 2006 and 2007 was built on the inevitability of her candidacy — to fold like a house of cards. Every candidate since Independence has tried to advocate for change, to varying degrees of credibility. But here is a man who, more than anyone since JFK, personifies change.
After decades of war room politics and government by opinion polls, it was reasonable for the Clinton campaign to assume that dusting off the playbook of 1992 would work again. After all, a tactical argument for change after a long Republican stint in the White House had worked before.
What the Clinton campaign didn’t or couldn’t expect was the emergence of a candidate who didn’t just want to change the faces that ran Washington — he was advocating more persuasively than most who came before him to change Washington altogether. In contrast to Obama’s call for sweeping change, a vote for Hillary became akin to the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The critical difference is that, in contrast to most past campaigns for change, the candidate in this case does not purport to be the change. Rather, he insists, the people at the rally are the change — he is just the vehicle that gives them voice. As effective as it might be, Clinton’s campaign is about Clinton. Inviting predictions that he is the heir to Camelot, Obama’s campaign is emphatically about everyone else in the room. Ask not what your country can do for you…
In this light, the truest foil for Obama in this primary season is not Clinton but former governor Romney, whose promising campaign never took flight. Mitt Romney, successful business leader and popular former governor of Massachusetts, was the ultimate focus-group candidate. Praised at first by the mainstream media for his potential appeal to moderates and independents because of his record as a governor, he quickly mutated into a social conservative and Reagan Republican because the polls suggested that was what it would take to win the nomination. The pro-choice governor became the pro-life candidate. The governor who expanded health care in Massachusetts became the candidate who stood against health care reform for the United States. Romney’s campaign was the best money could buy, and in the end, it bought very little. Millions of Romney’s own personal wealth was spent on crafting policies and messages, flooding key states with television advertising and building a strong organization on the ground. The campaign did everything except withstand the push-back from the cash-strapped, left-for-dead campaign of the maverick senator from Arizona. Today, only one of those two candidates is left standing.
Interestingly, in both the Democratic and Republican parties, the candidate who has challenged the establishment and argued for more fundamental change has captured the imagination of the party rank and file and the headlines, if not the nomination quite yet. In both cases, they have had to deal with significant resistance from a segment of their party, and they are more popular with independents than with some elements of the base. As an aside, when the election has come and gone and the results are known, the interesting question for researchers will be: Could John McCain have happened without Barack Obama?
With the Obama phenomenon as a backdrop, a federal election campaign may seem a daunting challenge indeed for Messieurs Harper and Dion. Boxed in by the fragmentation of the Canadian party system since 1993, the public disappointment of the Martin « vision for Canada » experiment and the cold realities of minority government, both the Conservatives and the Liberals are arguing competence over vision and campaigning for marginal seat gains here and there in the hope that the arithmetic might get them to a majority government in the case of Harper, and government of any type in the case of Dion.
With most polls giving a slight but not decisive edge to the Prime Minister in an eventual spring election, it is not surprising that both parties seem committed to a running game down the field — taking few risks, and earning their progress one yard at a time. Trouble is, with news of the US election being beamed into homes right across Canada every night, our leaders may find themselves facing an electorate hungry for someone willing to make the big play. As parties and leaders fight over the date at which we withdraw from Kandahar, the nuances of tax policy or the degree of federal involvement in funding post-secondary education, voters may be looking for a narrative about who we are and where we are going.
Having witnessed what happens to those who make an insincere or ineffective attempt at the « vision thing, » our leaders understandably shy away from grand pronouncements in favour of more manageable policy positions. But beyond the individual items on the electoral grocery list of policy proposals, how do they stand together in a coherent whole? Moreover, platforms can only give voters a sense of how our leaders plan to deal with problems they have already identified — they let us see the plan, not the character. In an increasingly unpredictable world, voters need to get a feel for how a leader would address a problem they could not foresee. Thus, notwithstanding the risk, perhaps Obama will encourage our leaders to rediscover the « where I stand » speech.
Beyond the next federal election, Barack Obama’s success thus far holds lessons for those concerned with the declining vigour of democratic discourse and falling citizen engagement in the electoral process. Since the fall, Obama has introduced literally hundreds of thousands of new voters to the democratic process. He did it through conventional means, with a conventional party, in a conventional election. What changed was not the medium, but the message. Obama is not promising to fix all that ails America with the wave of a wand. He is adamant that it will be difficult, it will take some time, and it must start with voters — us — not him. Citizens share in the responsibility of making change happen. His message is one of empowerment and mutual accountability between citizens and elected officials. We’re in this together.
Barack Obama could still flame out, or disappoint, or do neither of those things and still come up short in Denver. No one knows what kind of a president he would be or whether he would withstand the onslaught of scrutiny on his way to the White House. What matters, particularly for those us of without a say in the US election, is what he has already accomplished. He has proven that it is possible to spark interest in politics in an incredibly busy, distracted and cynical electorate. He has shown that it can (perhaps should) best be done through a political party. And he has done it while avoiding the lure of the easy, short-term, magic solution. That, almost more than any policy pronouncement, can be a lasting contribution to politics everywhere. The rest of the Obama story will be written by all those voters who are now paying attention.