Which story will US voters embrace?

Business Times - 02 Sep 2008

Will Obama come across as more 'American' - and thus more electable - or will it be McCain?


S OMETIMES even cliches can sound profound. Like when politicians and pundits were referring to last week's Democratic National Convention as 'historic', as a 'defining moment' and as a 'day to remember'.

Or when one of the young delegates to the gathering that nominated Senator Barack Obama as the party's presidential candidate told a television reporter that she felt as though 'history was being made tonight, and I was part of it'. Her tearful mother, sitting next to her in the huge outdoor stadium added: 'I wanted my daughter to be a witness to something that I had never believed will be taking place in my lifetime.'

Exactly 45 years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King delivered his historic 'I have a dream' speech, his dream of doing away with the scourges of racial discrimination and segregation in America seemed to be made real.

The son of a Kenyan father and white American mother, who fifty years ago wouldn't have been able to check into many hotels in some parts of the US, was telling a crowd of more than 75,000 people that 'I accept your nomination as the next president of the US'.

And the faces of the men and women in the stadium, cheering 'Yes, We Can' and waving flags and signs calling for 'change' and 'unity', seemed to dramatise the Obama Narrative that 'change is coming'.

But on another level, the Denver convention - ahead of the Republican National Convention in Twin City, Minnesota this week - is part of a historic presidential election year that bridges the politics of the 20th century and the new one. That is at least the way the narrative of the Democratic presidential candidate was trying to describe the choice facing Americans this year.

It is between Mr Obama, the face of the future, a contemporary embodiment of the American Dream who wants to readjust US economic and foreign policies to the realities of the era of globalisation, and the Republican presidential candidate, 72-year-old Senator John McCain, the oldest man ever to run for the US presidency and who, as the Democrats portray it, is planning to continue to pursue the failed economic and foreign policies of President George W Bush.

The main messages in the Obama Narrative can probably be encapsulated by one of the songs of Bruce Springsteen, an enthusiastic Obama supporter - Born in the USA, with its emphasis on the hardships suffered by returning war veterans and other Americans who have been left behind and are hoping to bring to life a faltering American Dream.

In a way, Mr Obama, whose white grandparents were working-class Americans while his mother raised him and his sister by herself, was hoping to convince Middle America that he was one of them, that his story is that of a kid from a humble background who succeeded in achieving that American Dream and who wants to make it possible for other Americans to do the same through a major reform of American politics and economics.

And that the main impediment to that kind of necessary 'change' - a new and affordable health-care system; bold steps to reduce American dependency on foreign oil; withdrawal from Iraq and the restoration of America's global leadership - is the Republican Plutocracy represented by Mr Bush, Dick Cheney and their anointed successor, John McCain, who will continue giving tax breaks to wealthy Americans and big corporations, including the oil companies, and embroil the US in new costly wars.

The First Lady Wannabe, who has been bashed by her Republican detractors as an angry anti-white black militant, succeeded in casting herself and the Obama family (including two photogenic young daughters) in the role of 'One of You' - another struggling American middle-class family, committed to the traditional all-American values of hard work, love of country, and faith.

Magnifying that message was Joe Biden, who had grown up in a working-class area in Pennsylvania, whose first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, and who, despite all the economic difficulties and personal tragedies, has never given up and has worked in Washington to help all those who belong to Middle America - as opposed to the rich and powerful friends of Mr Bush, Mr Cheney and Mr McCain. The Democrats hope that that kind of message will help Mr Obama strengthen his support among white blue-collar workers who feel uneasy about electing a black man and who also perceive the Harvard-educated Mr Obama as too 'elitist'.

The Democrats are trying to persuade them that it is Mr McCain who is the elitist millionaire who is out of touch with the concerns of Middle America.

The addresses by former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, whose political fight with Mr Obama during the presidential primaries helped create a major division in Democratic ranks, were supposed to help Mr Obama on two fronts.

The Democrats expect that Ms Clinton's call to her supporters - including many Hillary Voters, women and blue-collar workers - to vote for Mr Obama in November will also help overcome the split in the party.

More important, they are confident that many of the Democratic women who had threatened not to vote for Mr Obama in November will now 'return home' and cast their ballots for Ms Clinton's former rival.

The selection by Mr McCain of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate is seen as part of a Republican strategy to draw these angry Democratic women to the Republican camp in November.

At the same time, former president Clinton's asserting in his convention address that Mr Obama, despite his youth and relative inexperience was 'ready' to be the nation's commander-in-chief - Mr Clinton noted that he himself was younger than Mr Obama when he was elected as president - should help Mr Obama deal with Republican criticism that he lacks 'the resume' that is necessary in order to manage US national security problems.

Indeed, much of this week's Republican convention will see an attempt to draw the outline of a McCain Narrative with an emphasis on the American Story of the Republican candidate: a member of a distinguished military family, who had served as a pilot during the Vietnam War, whose plane was shot down and who was held as prisoner of war for several years.

The Republicans will argue that the manly and tough Mr McCain, with his military service and his long-time experience as a lawmaker in Washington, is the ideal candidate to lead the coming global fights of the 21st century against international terrorism, 'Islamo-Fascism' as well as Russia and Iran, while the inexperienced and somewhat metrosexual Mr Obama is not ready for Prime Time.

And with a nod to Middle America, the Republicans will stress that Mr McCain's personality and life story demonstrate that he - and not Mr Obama with his exotic name and background - is One of You, a Real American (who was actually born in Panama).

The outcome of the election will depend very much on which of the two narratives is embraced by American voters in November.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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