What’s intriguing about the Obama candidacy isn’t how different it is but how conventional. The Senator was never an aberration who recently “fell to earth,” as David Brooks wrote in The New York Times. It is more like a beautiful experiment (a term in a new book by science writer George Johnson) in presidential politics. The beauty lies in the clarity of the definitions. Everything is contained within limits. The object is to test how far you can go while remaining inside the parameters.

So his rhetoric was vapid and typical from the start. Everyone calls for change and attacks Washington. His advisers are mainstream; his policies are standard. On foreign affairs, he wants to keep a U.S. presence in Iraq, augment it in Afghanistan, and bulk up the military. Where his past record indicated slight deviations, he shifted to get under the tent with everyone else: avoiding a photo with San Francisco’s mayor, for instance, lest he seem to favour gay marriage. The guy triangulates like a Clinton.

I don’t say this critically. Once you decide to run for president there are constraints. You accept them or stay out of the game. The experiment is to determine how much you can push the limits without eliminating yourself.

There are two counter-models here. One is The Clintons. After their first term as Arkansas governor, they lost an election. From that they concluded, effectively, that the goal of politics is to win and stay in power. It is not power for anything, though you may say you want to do certain things in order to get and keep it.

The other model is Ralph Nader. He runs for president with no chance or intention of winning. His goals are clear and worthy but because of them, he’s not seriously in the presidential game. You can’t play that game with his politics.

The Obama experiment is about staying in the game and going beyond what those like The Clintons would do anyway.

Its achievements have been modest and probably can’t

be otherwise but so far they


The possibility of a black president — This is the concrete meaning of change if the Obama usage has any — that the mere fact of a black president will (at least help) heal an ancient wound over race. But you can’t run as a black candidate, you must run as a uniter of black and white. All the other side need do is colour you black, as Bill Clinton did by equating Barack Obama with Jesse Jackson. Hillary Clinton doubled the bet by saying she had “no evidence” he was a Muslim. Now he was a black Muslim. And Geraldine Ferraro, on the Clintons’ behalf, invoked the racially loaded charge of affirmative action, saying if he wasn’t black he wouldn’t be there at all. These people aren’t racists. They use the racism of others in order to win. That’s a lot worse;

Intelligent discourse — His lengthy speech on the original Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy was completely unpatronizing. It acknowledged understandable anger on all sides. It counterbalanced his prattle about change. Fifty years ago, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson tried to “talk sense to the American people,” and lost two elections. In his speech, Senator Obama talked more sense during a U.S. election than anyone in memory;

Mobilization — When Hillary Clinton was forming her health-care plan in the early 1990s, someone suggested a system like Canada’s. Who would back that? she asked. The American people, was the answer. Tell me something interesting, she scoffed. The Obama campaign has built a mass popular base, though whether it could be used for anything beyond an election is unclear.

Barack Obama isn’t the only politician to ever go this route but he seems unusually aware of having accepted the terms of the experiment. He’s giving it a try. If he ever got to the White House, who knows what he’d do — including him. Aside from continuing the experiment.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.