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The audacity of Barack Obama

In the waning days of the campaign, Claremont Review of Books published editor Charles Kesler’s “The audacity of Barack Obama.” The essay is worth revisiting now that Obama has taken office.

Based on a comprehensive reading of Obama’s books and speeches, Professor Kesler deduced that Obama’s ambition is not merely personal, but rather is political and Rooseveltian in scope. Indeed, he found that Obama faults Bill Clinton for failing to pursue large, transformative policies, or for being unable to pursue them because of his personal failings:

Obama praises Bill Clinton more highly than any other contemporary Democrat, because Clinton recognized the staleness of the old political debate between Left and Right and came close to moving beyond it with his politics of the Third Way, which “tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.” But Clinton blew it, and the author gradually lets you know it. First, he regrets Clinton’s “clumsy and transparent” gestures to the Reagan Democrats, and his “frighteningly coldhearted” use of other people (e.g., “the execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate” before a crucial primary). Then Obama notes sadly that Clinton’s policies–”recognizably progressive if modest in their goals”–had commanded broad public support, but that the president had never been able, “despite a booming economy,” to turn that support into a governing coalition. Finally, he gently accuses Clinton of the worst offense of all: strengthening the forces of conservatism. Due to his “personal lapses” and careless triangulations that ceded more and more ground to the Right, Clinton prepared the way for George W. Bush’s victory in 2000.

In his campaign speeches, Obama can’t afford to be so candid–he needs Hillary and Bill’s supporters, after all–but he subtly makes his point. For example, in his Acceptance Speech in Denver, the single biggest speech of the campaign, he laid at Bill Clinton’s feet the oldest backhanded compliment in the books, thanking the former president “who last night made the case for change as only he can make it….” That’s a disguised double insult: it reminds the discerning ear of Clinton’s characteristic bloviation, and then of his political failings (when you see Clinton, you’re reminded why the Democrats need Obama).

Granted, Obama holds Clinton to higher standards than he does the other party elders. Jimmy Carter, Gore, Kerry–these gentlemen lacked the political talent that Clinton squandered, in Obama’s estimation, and they were innocent of political daring. Their shortcomings are palliated, to some extent, by the fact that the times were not auspicious. Still, Obama is fairly clear that if the party is to move forward it must return to earlier exemplars, and especially to its heroes who brought about major political changes lasting for a generation or more.

Professor Kesler found Obama’s call for “change” as requiring “nothing less than a full-blown electoral earthquake that will permanently shatter the 50-50 America of the past four presidential elections. Obama thinks liberals can get beyond the old debate [between right and left] by finally winning it.” Kesler writes:

Eking out a bare Democratic majority isn’t good enough,” he writes in The Audacity of Hope. “What’s needed is a broad majority of Americans–Democrats, Republicans, and independents of good will….” After the New Hampshire primary, he told his supporters “you can be the new majority who can lead this nation out of a long political darkness.” A month later, after winning the Wisconsin primary, he explained what he called “my central premise,” that “the only way we will bring about real change in America is if we can bring new people into the process, if we can attract young people, if we can attract independents, if we can stop fighting with Republicans and try to bring some over to our side. I want to form a working majority for change.” That’s easier said than done, of course, and likely would require several elections. Speaking to the AFL-CIO in 2003, he laid out the long march that would be necessary:

I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program…. [a] single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House.

As a matter of fact, he is not officially a proponent of a single-payer health care plan; his 2008 platform stops far short of that. Nor has he repeated this sweeping, candid endorsement of his ultimate goal, which might be described by that hoary but accurate epithet, socialized medicine. In the meantime, however, the Democrats in 2006 recaptured both the Senate and the House of Representatives. If after 2008 the Democratic party controls all three elective branches, then his “working majority for change” will be in a position to go to work.

Professor Kesler’s essay — from which I have quoted only the set-up — makes out the scope of Obama’s ambition and the seriousness of his purpose.

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