Winning the American Presidency requires a candidate to embody an abstract principle: a rhetorical Archimedean point. The candidate needs to push it at every opportunity and embody it in their political DNA.
Bush’s campaigns (particularly in 2004) rested on two huge abstract principles: fear and his own constancy. The world was a fearful place, full of hidden dangers. He had the antidotes and was prepared to apply them through thick and thin. Unfortunately for America, Bush proved to be the candidate he said he would be. He and Cheney have peddled war, fear, partisan division, and narrow opportunism at every turn. And they’ve peddled it constantly and in face of the evidence.
Americans are hungry for a new start. They want to disengage from the war in Iraq. They fear the coming recession. They want affordable health care and secure jobs and fair tax breaks. In short, the time is ripe for a new phase in politics.
And this is where Barack Obama’s Theory of Hope comes in. He is the only candidate who has captured the mood of the nation, embodied it in his campaign wholly and completely, and expressed it most eloquently. He has the stirring words of the orator, the passionate gestures, the emotional voice, the evangelical fervour. And he has that word: Hope. He has made it his own, identified with it totally and completely, turned it into the key to his campaign.
Obama’s victory speech in Iowa is already being hailed as one of the ‘great’ speeches. I think it takes time for great speeches to be recognised, so I’ll reserve my personal judgement on that.
But central to that speech is a long definition of hope. Obama’s words are worth quoting in detail:
…hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight.
Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation; what led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause.
Hope—hope—is what led me here today – with a father from Kenya; a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.
Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.
Obama is resting his campaign on this one, flexible, powerful word.
Hope is mankind’s greatest virtue. Without hope there would be little chance of innovation, determination, or bravery in the face of despair. Pandora’s box exposed us to all evils, but hope remained. And that myth also gives us another clue to the word’s potency: its ancient origins. It is not a bedrock, just, of America: it is a bedrock of all of mankind.
And everyone responds to a a little bit of flattery too. America is being flattered in the speech, as the country most capable of embracing hope and changing things for the better. And everyone responds well to a challenge, to the roll-up-your-sleeves encouragement and the rallying cries of the great motivators.
Challenging Obama on the specifics misses the point. Modern American politics is not about specifics. It is about the big message, the selling of a dream. And none have come bigger and more polished than Obama’s Theory of Hope. Inevitably, he will be challenged to offer more details, to make difficult choices, to alienate some constituencies. His opponents have no other option but to fight him on the ground he is weakest on: experience and the ability to make tough decisions. If he overcomes those challenges, then he has every chance of succeeding.