Understanding Obama’s Appeal

What his fans see—and why it’s trouble for Clinton.

By Ellis Cose

Web Exclusive

Feb 6, 2008 | Updated: 4:21  p.m. ET Feb 6, 2008

In the wake of Super Tuesday, both camps have claimed victory: Obama because he won more states; Clinton because she got more votes and won the largest states. Both campaigns can credibly claim to have the wind to their back as they enter the next stage. Yet because of the nature of his candidacy, a draw or even a close Clinton victory at this stage renders Obama more attractive to those who like him but are reluctant to gamble on an unknown.

Obama is appealing because he offers an immense, if unproved, potential for greatness. Hillary Clinton’s appeal lies, in large measure, in her familiarity—in the sense that with her we know pretty much what we will get. She is a bit like the comfortable neighborhood swimming pool, while Obama is more like the ocean—full of wonder, mystery, and beauty, but also peril. The problem for Clinton is that, as more and more people dive into that ocean, it becomes less and less scary, and even more people are tempted to join them.

Obama’s advisers are fond of arguing that the more people get to know about Obama, the more they like him, that the longer he campaigns, the more viable his candidacy becomes. The truth is more complicated. People seem to like him well enough even at first glance. Many are not convinced, however, that he is quite real, that the soaring rhetoric of hope, unity and change is compatible with a practical plan for governing.

Obama’s rallies, which tend to attract larger and more delirious crowds than Clinton’s, are full of people who swoon over the man but cannot tell you precisely why they support him. They talk of his power to inspire, his ability to unite, his promise of fulfilling so many dreams, but little of it is about anything tangible. Yet the higher he soars, the longer he stays airborne, the more realizable his quest for the presidency seems. That can be seen most clearly in the way support has grown for his candidacy among black voters. Initially most blacks did not back him—in part because he was so unfamiliar, but also because he seemed like such a long shot. He now enjoys overwhelming black support, because after a big win in Iowa and impressive showings elsewhere his candidacy seems much more real.

Much the same seems to be happening—albeit not quite as dramatically—with other groups. In several of the contests on Tuesday, Obama beat Clinton among white males; he consistently beats her among young people. And he even appeals to people who don’t normally consider themselves Democrats.

“I can’t tell you how many Republicans I know who have never supported a Democrat before [who are supporting Obama],” his adviser Valerie Jarrett told me. At Obama’s rally at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, Rosalind Van Tuyl, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, sported a T-shirt identifying herself as an “Obamacan.” Van Tuyl explained that she was a registered Republican who had never before worked for a Democrat, but “I felt called to this in a way I haven’t felt called to anything.” Why? Because Obama “transcended the divide, the labels, and the dogma.”

It’s impossible to say how well Obama would actually do if he found himself in the White House. It’s far from clear how he would go about reforming a town where lobbyists grease the wheels of government and big money buys political support. Compelling though his oratory may be, it is unlikely to change people’s fundamental perception of their self-interest—particularly if they are already comfortably in power.

But Obama is not so much selling a prescription for governance as he is selling a movement; he is selling faith in an idea and in the power of the people to achieve it. And therefore people seem not to care so much about the specifics: the dream itself is enough, for now.

“Tonight I want to speak directly to all those Americans who have yet to join this movement but still hunger for change … They know we can do better than we’re doing. They know we can take our politics to a higher level … but they are afraid,” he declared Tuesday evening. He then invited undecided voters to set aside their fear, challenging them to accept the call of destiny: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. We are the hope,” he roared.

Hard to argue with hope, as the Clinton campaign has discovered. It’s also hard to argue against an appeal to people to set aside fear. That argument only becomes harder as more and more people dive into the water. The big question both campaigns face has less to do with who won what on Super Tuesday than with whether it helped Obama’s movement achieve a kind of critical mass—whether it helped him garner enough support to convince leery voters to set aside their fears and leap into the great unknown.