Image over substance?

The whole world has been watching the US elections more keenly this
time, and not only because the digital media explosion makes that
easier to do. It’s mainly been the Obama factor.

For much of the world, Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in
the Democratic primaries was a moment to admire the United States, at a
time when the nation’s image abroad has been seriously damaged.

How damaged depends on who you talk to, and this WaPo article did a broad sweep.

The primary elections generated unprecedented interest
around the world, as people in distant parliament buildings and
thatched-roof huts followed the political ups and downs as if they were
watching a Hollywood thriller.

It was that, though odd to use the past tense on this race.

Much of the interest simply reflects hunger for change
from President Bush, who is deeply unpopular in much of the world. At
the same time, many people abroad seemed impressed — sometimes even
shocked — by the wide-open nature of U.S. democracy and the
history-making race between a woman and a black man.

It got pretty shocking at times here as well.

How were the three main candidates regarded?

While Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has admirers around
the world, especially from her days as first lady, interviews on four
continents suggested that Obama’s candidacy has most captured the
world’s imagination.

“Obama is the exciting image of what we always hoped America was,”
said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London think tank. “We
have immensely enjoyed the ride and can’t wait for the next phase.”

The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, who has
extensive overseas experience, is known and respected in much of the
world. In interviews, McCain seemed more popular than Obama in
countries such as Israel, where McCain is particularly admired for his
hard line against Iran. In China, leaders have enjoyed comfortable
relations with Bush and are widely believed to be wary of a Democratic

But elsewhere, people were praising Obama, 46, whose heavy emphasis
on the Internet helped make him better known in more nations than
perhaps any U.S. primary candidate in history.

Perhaps “known” is not the right word. People certainly became more
familiar with him because of his campaign’s great organizational skills
that included a strong internet presence. But Barack Obama is still an unknown.

With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic Party
nomination, it is worth noting what an extraordinary moment this is.
Democrats are nominating a freshman Senator barely three years out of
the Illinois legislature whom most of America still hardly knows. The
polls say he is the odds-on favorite to become our next President.

Think about this in historical context. Jimmy Carter and Bill
Clinton were relatively unknown, but both had at least been prominent
Governors. John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and even George McGovern
were all long-time Washington figures. Republican nominees tend to be
even more familiar, for better or worse. In Mr. Obama, Democrats are
taking a leap of faith that is daring even by their risky standards.

As the WaPo article above pointed out, it’s been a thriller. For a lot of people, it’s a sign of new times.

Above all, Mr. Obama has fashioned a message that fits
the political moment and the public’s desire for “change.” At his best,
he offers Americans tired of war and political rancor the promise of
fresh national unity and purpose. Young people in particular are taken
by it. But more than a few Republicans are also drawn to this
“postpartisan” vision.

Mr. Obama has also shown great skill in running his campaign. No one
– including us – gave him much chance of defeating the Clinton machine.
No doubt he benefited from the desire of even many Democrats to impeach
the polarizing Clinton era. But he also beat Hillary and Bill at their
own game. He raised more money, and he outworked them in the
small-state caucuses that provided him with his narrow delegate margin.
Even now, he is far better organized in swing states than is John
McCain’s campaign. All of this speaks well of his preparation for
November, and perhaps for his potential to govern.

Yet govern how and to what end? This is the Obama Americans don’t
know. For all of his inspiring rhetoric about bipartisanship, his
voting record is among the most partisan in the Senate. His policy
agenda is conventionally liberal across the board – more so than
Hillary Clinton’s, and more so than that of any Democratic nominee
since 1968.

We can’t find a single issue on which Mr. Obama has broken with his party’s left-wing interest groups…

Perhaps now Mr. Obama will tack to the center, but somehow he will
have to explain why the “change” he’s proposing isn’t merely more of
the same, circa 1965.

There will be plenty of opportunities to get into the substance in Phase II of this thriller. Hang on.


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