Barack and Bill

Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara on why the two Democrats have so much in common.

Barack Obama




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When I wrote Bill Clinton, the Campaign, Administration and Foreign Policy in 1993, little did I know that it would help me understand the Obama phenomenon 15 years later and why the senator from Illinois has all but defeated Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York. 

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama grew up in broken families in modest homes but retained a dream that some day they would be president. They both had strong free-spirited mothers who left home and remarried, leaving the handsome little devils with their grandparents.  

Both struggled on the border between Black and White America, and learned to confront racial tensions with a cool temperament and accommodation. 

They attended Catholic schools as pupils and went to prestigious law schools, where they dabbled with drugs and married their college sweethearts, Hillary and Michelle, respectively.

Both women are highly intelligent and confident law students, and their husbands’ staunchest cheerleaders. 

Bill and Barack were both inspired by Martin Luther King’s dream, and mesmerised by the charisma and freshness of the John F. Kennedy presidency.

But neither of them could ever shake the comparison to George McGovern, the liberal senator who lost the 1972 elections to Richard Nixon.  

Their eloquence is equal only to their oratory (a mix of theology and Enlightenment), and their capacity to inspire is equaled only by their search for recognition and acceptance. Hard workers and fast learners, they are more capable than any to memorise and relay vast and complex information. 

In their mid-40s, the two impatient public figures reckoned their time had come. And despite lack of military service, they were enthusiastic to take on the older, more experienced, socially moderate Republican opponents, George Bush and John McCain, respectively.

Bush and McCain were both military aviators and war heroes turned security hawks with hardcore Washington careers. 

It is this pedigree that explains why, when given the choice between Hillary and the ‘new and improved’ Bill, most voters have thus far chosen the certifiable Clinton brand in the form of an Obama candidacy. 

It is also an ironic twist that explains why the verbal acrobatics and random criticism voiced by the older Bill are not affecting the younger Obama; they were all leveled at Clinton when he ran for president in 1992, and failed to silence the message of hope and change over the politics of fear and familiarity.  

The two men are pragmatic progressives, who understood early on that in order for his liberal ideas to reign, they would have to bargain their way by cutting deals with Main Street as well as Wall Street. 

Having mastered the art of compromise to fit in during childhood, and schmoozed their way to social recognition and political leadership as adults, both men were more capable than most to bridge antithetical ideas and bring people together. 

Socio-economic revival

Barack, like Bill, realised that his alienated countrymen seek someone to lead the way towards social-economic revival instead of more of the same foreign adventures. Putting America’s house in order, he reckons, must take precedence and pave the way to world order, not the other way around. 


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For that purpose, he has been trying to chart a ‘third way’ between polarising ideological and dogmatic forces that have torn the nation apart. 

Like Bill, he ran as an underdog but managed an incredible strategic and resourceful campaign, supported by a vast fundraising network that surprised all. After a bit of stumbling in the first phase of the campaign, he went on to win many southern states to earn the title of ‘the comeback kid’. 

He has drawn people from all walks of life to gigantic arenas; an increasing number of Republicans has been flocking to his campaign which hopes to attract as many of these “Obamacans” as Reagan drew from Democrats in the 1980s. 

It is no coincidence then that David Wilhelm, the man who served as the national manager of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, endorsed Obama as the leader who can build a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans needed to win the general election. 

Obama’s movement

The next few weeks will tell who will win the Democratic nomination and go on to win the presidency. But one thing is becoming clear with each new poll: Democrats will not win this year or even in 2012 without Obama’s movement. 

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The senator from Chicago has triggered a nation-wide energy that goes beyond anything we have seen in modern US politics, the Reagan movement/revolution included. While Senator Clinton promises to change the White House, Obama promises to transform America and the way Washington ‘does’ politics.

The first encourages the voters, the latter fires them up. 

If Obama does not run against McCain, it will be hard to see why many of those fired-up liberals, independents, or African-Americans would bother to vote. His multi-cultural, cross racial, inter-generational, multi-class movement is indispensable for Democrats to win the White House.

With his promise of a “great new society” and McCain’s promise of more war, their race to the White House promises a clear cut choice for the American people. 

1964 repeat?

It remains to be seen if 2008 will be a repeat of the 1964 results, when President Johnson defeated Senator Goldwater, McCain’s guru and predecessor from Arizona. 

However, if he does win, Obama must show how he is different from Bill Clinton. 

His post-racial, post ideological, rhetoric as the redeemer of the nation and the healer of its ills (health care reform withstanding) makes for great speeches, but is hardly suitable, even as a platform for a policy plan. 

Like Bill, Obama’s political trajectory has already been set. If he finally lands at the White House lawn come January, he will be likewise ‘prog-matic’, albeit more progressive and less pragmatic than the former president. 

And the world will have much to celebrate about America come November.  

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera