Vantage point

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

First Name Rhymes with Iraq, Last Name with Osama, Middle Name Hussein

The title of this post is how Jon Stewart once refered to Barack Obama. During my trip to India I realised that not many folks back home, barring some quizzers and really aware people, know who this guy is. In the US, they have been going nuts over him. And yesterday he made it official. He has taken his first step towards the White House by forming a Presidential Exploratory Committee. On 10th February, on the basis of what his committee finds, he will declare his intentions. It is a given that he will run. His time is now.

Some of you... very few of you would be thinking.. who is this Barack Obama? Two years back, even calling this guy a "long shot" would have been considered fictional, and Hollywoodish. I mean come on.... a black President? That's not something even a proper mainstream Hollywood film would have considered. A science fiction film.... set way in the future.... directed by a French guy.... maybe. But not your apple-pie-summer-blockbuster.

And now we actually have a black guy who many people at least I have spoken to consider a shoe-in as the next President. Many many massive hurdles to cross before that, of course, but a lot of people do feel that way.

So here are a few basic facts about Obama. His father was born in Kenya and his mother was a white American from Kansas. His parents divorced and his mother married an Indonesian, and Obama lived in Indonesia for a few years. Then he moved to Hawaii where he went to high school. In his teens, he tried pot and even cocaine.

So get this.... a black guy... with mixed parentage... coming from a broken home.... growing up in Hawaii... and confessing to having used drugs... is a serious contender for the Presidentship of the United States. Who woulda thought?

He has the educational pedigree though. He went to college at Columbia, studied law at Harvard and taught at the University of Chicago. For the last two years he has been representing Illinois in the US Senate. And yes, obviously, he is a democrat.

Obama's rise... for which even the word meteoric seems too mild, is interesting, fascinating, and a significant proof of the influence that the media has. Media hype is what has catapulted him to a position where, latest opinion polls show him to be neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination. And as things right now, the former first lady's staff should not be surprised to find bricks in her toilet.

Obama has charisma... a lot of it.. perhaps even more than Bill Clinton... and definitely more than bushbushreagancarterfordnixonjohnson put together. In fact Obama's charisma-fuelled run is reminiscent of the name which comes before Johnson - John F Kennedy. Not since Kennedy has a combination of youth, charisma and a desire for change seemed so powerful.

But for all these comparisons to Kennedy, will he win the elections? Will he first win the Democrat primaries? Hard to say.

Right now he has been chugging along on charisma and hype. So far it has been just media, Obama and people. Now other politicians will join the fray. Hillary will turn the heat on. Other Democrats will enter the fray. The Republicans will try to tear him apart. This will be the real test of the man's character and ability.

In 2004, everything was ripe for Bush to lose. Iraq had gone wrong, and the 9/11 goodwill had vanished. And yet he survived. Because John Kerry was an idiot. He was boring, uninspiring, flippy floppy, and was more obsessed with a war that happened 35 years ago. Bush didn't exactly win it. The Democrats lost it. They could not sway the swing voters.

As everyone knows, a little less than 40 of the 50 states in America are either strongly Republican or strongly Democrat. It is the remaining states, swing states, that make the difference. Here what counts is your position on some key issues, how well you run your campaign, and your ability to inspire confidence.

Over the next year, we will see Obama's issues and track record being put under the scanner. His personal life.... will be interesting to see if there is anything in that. I find his approach quite honest and straightforward. Remember when Bill Clinton was asked about smoking pot in college, he said he did, but did not inhale. Obama was asked the same question. he said he smoked pot... and also inhaled, because that is the whole point of pot.

Refreshing honesty at best, or impression of honesty at worst.

He has the personality and the appeal that would make youngsters come out and vote for him, just like in Kennedy's case. However, Democrat primaries are closed primaries, i.e only registered Democrats can vote. Of course his charisma, appeal and popularity among the youngsters will be a plus in the mind of democrat voters who will be or at least should be determined to field, for the first time in 12 years, a candidate with a personality significantly better than a fire hydrant. But issues will matter here too.

In the next post I'll look at his stand on issues, his possible weak points, and compare him with Hillary.