Obama’s Theory of Hope

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Doctor Drone said,

    January 8, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Everybody thinks that politics is just one big ad campaign: “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.”

    The candidate says: “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.” Here he’s talking the language of having your cake and eatng it too. He illustrates hope in a few threadbare inspirational anecdotes. I have to wonder how it was possible not to yawn when he trotted out these commonplaces of political evasion.

    In a serious country, he wouldn’t shirk the politics until he was challenged by “opponents who have no other option but to fight him on the ground he is weakest on.” He should try his hand at selling laundry detergent.

  2. Thomas Whittle said,

    January 8, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Doctor, you need help understanding the word “HOPE.” I could tell you about being stuck behind a mud pill in Vietnam being shot at with AK 47s. I could tell you about growing up in rural VA as a share farmer plowing a double plow with two mules. I could tell you about sending my daughter off to Iraq after being told that there were WMD and to find out that I was lied too.
    But, I would rather tell you what “HOPE” is out of love. HOPE is seeing what we as a nation could become to the world, HOPE is believing that every child deserves a place to sleep and food to eat, HOPE is listening to someone telling you what you can be rather than what you are not. Finally, HOPE is to watch a bee gather nector from a flower and knowing that this little bee is going to make something special. Here is where I am going, look at America’s children and see them educated and as agents of change around the world bring good to humanity, not bombs.

  3. Doctor Drone said,

    January 8, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Hope, dude, is putting all your chips on red seven. Talking about it in this irrational way s pathetic.

  4. January 8, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Remember, Obama’s trying to win an election. Americans (like most people around the world) can become bored with policy debate, and want to hear a positive message amid uncertain times.

    Perhaps this particular Obama speech is vacuous. But this is designed to move people, not lay out an iron-clad set of steps to improve the country.

    In a serious country, he wouldn’t shirk the politics until he was challenged

    It’s a good strategy for him.

    Running for office is at least as much about psychology, image, and perception as it is about policies, debates, and logic. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be the case, but we’re dealing with humans here.

  5. shazgood said,

    January 8, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Obama didn’t make the rules: he’s making the best of what he’s got.
    I don’t endorse or reject Obama based on his use of rhetoric. I’d hope (er…) that most voters will make up their minds based on a whole host of factors, from the personality of the man, his policies, his party, his basic principles. And, yes, some will make up their mind based on his race.

    And come to think of it: why is it considered racist if some white Americans would refuse to vote for Obama because of his skin colour, and not racist if the vast majority of black people voted for Obama? Surely, both are making a decision based on race?

  6. Doctor Drone said,

    January 9, 2008 at 12:49 am

    I do hold his use of hope as a pretext for cynicism against him. Look up his announcement speech in which he quotes RFK from four decades ago on the “empathy deficit.” He’s a cynical guy, far more cynical than his most Machiavellian opponents, and the good people of Iowa and New Hampshire have played right into his hands. There’s no difference here between Bush’s lameass “compassionate conservatism” (2000) or “Yes, America can!” (2004) and Obama’s puerile: “I’m askng you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.” When he’s not ripping off RFK, he’s ripping off JFK.

    Here’s the slogan: We need to take our ritalin and rediscover our attention span long enough to pay attention to real issues.

    If Iraq is the most pressing issue of the day, then let the candidates make something to do with Iraq their slogan. Hope is a slogan for some chump who’s just spent his last ten bucks on lottery tickets.

  7. January 10, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Cannot a candidate advocate a pukey message of hope AND have strong policy issues? You’re treating it like they’re mutually exclusive.

  8. obamaismad said,

    January 11, 2008 at 3:39 am

    He is about as qualified to be the US president as G Bush – only he was at least a Gov of Texas. He is full of empty rhetoric and platitudes and is pretty useless as a serious president. In about 8 years or so he might make a good president if he has actually done anything worthwhile. So far he has little or nothing to point to -relatively speaking.

    He has been hyped up beyond belief and has no chance of becoming president despite the best efforts of a fawning media who all got it so wrong about this guy.

    BTW how come when it suits everyone is so happy to say he is a possible first ” black” president? I find this hypocritical and racist.

    In point of fact he is 50-50 but then does this only confirm that when u have a black and a white there is only black!

    Same was the case with Tiger Woods. It is insulting to African americans but anyway surely we should be concerned only with who would be the best for the job regardless of skin color or gender?

    John Edwards is by far the best candidate but assuming he has even less chance than Osma Hussein Barak then clearly

    Hilary is the only realand serious Democratic party option?

    Obama is full of wishy washy rubbish and has little depth. He is a pied piper of sorts.

  9. shazgood said,

    January 11, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Maybe instead of a vice-president, the US should appoint a Spokesman in Chief, or Chief Evangelist? That way, Obama gets to say all the fancy stuff while someone like Hilary gets to actually run the country.
    The issue Liquid Egg raises is important – why are good speeches and good policies not compatible?
    Anyway, Obama now has a stage like no other to show his substance, if he has any. Everyone should be thankful that New Hampshire went to Hilary, because now there is a real race on.

  10. Doctor Drone said,

    January 12, 2008 at 10:38 am

    I’d rather have Al Sharpton either as Chief Evangelist or President than Obama.

    Yeah, Sharpton’s made mistakes, but I don’t trust a man who hasn’t made mistakes. Also, Sharpton’s much smarter than Obama. His problem, unfortunately, is that he’s just a little too black for the voting majority.

  11. January 14, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Britain more-or-less has a spokeswoman in the monarchy and the PM does the work. I’m not sure how we can pull it off over here; the VP maybe because that position has little power.

    With this next presidency, I’m not sure whether it’s most important to choose the “best” president, but one who is most capable of repairing bridges with the world. Unfortunately, a lot of Americans are very proud, with a “USA #1” attitude, but as time goes on it will become more obvious (even to us) that this is not a one “superpower” world and strong, positive relations with other countries is vital. Obama’s silver tongue, opposition to the Iraq war, and (yes) his skin color provide a unique opportunity for the US to show it wants to change. Despite him not being the most capable president.

    Re: Sharpton. His problem is not so much that he’s black, but that his identity is race relations. He wouldn’t be able to shed his image to have a serious chance of winning.

  12. January 14, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Britain more-or-less has a spokeswoman in the monarchy and the PM does the work. I’m not sure how we can pull it off over here; the VP maybe because that position has little power.

    With this next presidency, I’m not sure whether it’s most important to choose the “best” president, but one who is most capable of repairing bridges with the world. Unfortunately, a lot of Americans are very proud, with a “USA #1” attitude, but as time goes on it will become more obvious (even to us) that this is not a one “superpower” world and strong, positive relations with other countries is vital. Obama’s silver tongue, opposition to the Iraq war, and (yes) his skin color provide a unique opportunity for the US to show it wants to change. Despite him not being the most capable president.

    Re: Sharpton. His problem is not so much that he’s black, but that his identity is race relations. He wouldn’t be able to shed his image to have a serious chance of winning.

  13. Doctor Drone said,

    January 15, 2008 at 12:29 am

    You’re saying we need a Brit style figurehead? We could hire the Queen to be our monarch, how’s that sound?

    You state the following as though they were axiomatic: 1) we need to repair bridges with the rest of the world; 2) Americans take a USA #1 attitude; 3) we’re a superpower in need of learning that we’re not the only superpower; 4) relations aren’t already as vital as they can be; 5) Obama has a silver rather than the evasive tongue of a hollow man; 6) the US needs to show it wants to change. The latter I find particularly amusing. There’s always talk about change, but things don’t really change except in the most superficial sense. Moreover, showing we want to change is not the same as changing. That all sounds like psychobabble.

  14. January 15, 2008 at 7:50 am

    Do you remember in 2004 when Howard Dean made a statement that the United States needs to prepare for a time when it is no longer the most powerful country in the world? Do you remember the anger that generated among Americans? This is the kind of event I’m thinking of regarding points 2 and 3.

    I’m not sure what country you hail from, but from what this American reads of foreign media, 1 and 4 are a given.

    6 is not axiomatic, but logical if one accepts 1-4.

    Your concerns about Obama being hollow can’t be dismissed. I don’t believe he’s incredibly worse than the other candidates, but I can’t prove it.

    Regarding Brit-style figurehead: Simply because of inertia, it probably won’t happen. I’ve no idea whether it would be good or bad.

    Regarding change: psychology means a lot. We are dealing with people, not robots.

  15. Doctor Drone said,

    January 15, 2008 at 8:51 am

    No, I don’t remember any of this fuss about Dean because he was old news after 2000.

    No, 1) and 4) are not givens. Media in all countries have a tendency to whine. Relations with other countries are like relations with your family. Nothing perfect about family life.

    Again, even if 1-4 were true, showing we wanted to change is the kind of empty gesture that marks Obama for being a hollow man. You should learn to stop talking about mere gestures.

    And since we are dealing with people, change is really not on the agenda.

  16. shazgood said,

    January 15, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    There’s a wider problem I have with Obama’s candidacy, not directly related to him per se: electing anybody based on charisma or rhetoric is very dangerous. Arguably, Hitler was a good orator (although some people say he was a windbag too…). In any case, it is undeniable that he used emotional rhetoric to stir the crowd to a frenzy. I’m not comparing Obama to Hitler, simply stating the obvious danger: totalitarians love the glitz of power, the glamour. When the public vote with their hearts and not their heads, there is a 50-50 chance they’ll elect some nutcase.
    Democracy, in an ideal sense, should produce drab functionaries. Gordon Brown is an example: monotone, drab, efficient. He’d hardly be able to stir a cup of tea, yet he leads a major European country. The Queen hardly speaks in public, except once a year in Parliament and once a year on TV on Christmas Day.

    America needs a vision, which is where the second-in-command would come in. He/she would rouse the passion and energise the masses, while the real power would lie elsewhere.

  17. Doctor Drone said,

    January 15, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    There might be substance underneath the rhetoric and charisma; but when all the talk is about the empty shell of charisma, then I feel afraid.

  18. January 15, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    America needs a vision, which is where the second-in-command would come in. He/she would rouse the passion and energise the masses, while the real power would lie elsewhere.

    Just like Bush (charisma, of sorts)-Cheney (real power)!

    electing anybody based on charisma or rhetoric is very dangerous.
    but when all the talk is about the empty shell of charisma, then I feel afraid.

    This is a fair point; and you’ve instantly made me more tepid about Obama.

    And since we are dealing with people, change is really not on the agenda.
    Since we’re dealing with such issues as a botched Iraq War and poorly addressed environmental concerns, change had better be on the agenda.

    Democracy, in an ideal sense, should produce drab functionaries.
    LOL, yes. But it’s not how people react.

    You should learn to stop talking about mere gestures.
    Sometimes, gestures are important and/or can be used to gain status and favors–even if they are (by themselves) meaningless.

  19. Doctor Drone said,

    January 16, 2008 at 5:16 am

    Gestures are important from the perspective of anthropology?

    Here’s how things rank:

    1) Actions
    2) Meaningful speech
    3) Gesture (trailing a distant third)

  20. January 16, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    The right gestures make the true goal (actions) easier. It’s a sad truth, but that’s how people work.


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