Senator Barack Obama's victory speech in Iowa last night, rightly lauded for its eloquence and idealism, was lifted up by a sense of history. His ability to maintain that will go a long way in determining whether he wins the Democratic nomination.
As with much of Obama's candidacy, his knack for presenting himself as the candidate of historical destiny is presented in broad strokes. He's not always explicit on his details, and he has yet to be tested by the kind of firestorm that Republicans will throw at him if he wins the nomination.
Still, in his person--and in his rhetoric--Obama lets everyone know that his candidacy represents both a fulfillment of American ideals and a turning point in recent history. Last night, when he invoked the American Revolution (but not the Civil War) and the Civil Rights Movement, he reminded Americans of a national promise yet to be fulfilled. He also presented his own campaign as the fulfillment of that promise. And he reminded Americans of his desire to restore our soiled reputation in the world. Chris Matthews, for all his bombast, was onto something when he described Obama's victory as a Lexington and Concord moment.
The contrast between Obama's speech and Senator Hillary Clinton's was telling. If Obama operated on a grand strategic level, Clinton was far more tactical. She reassured her supporters that her candidacy was still viable, reminded people that the caucuses were proof of an invigorated Democratic Party, and laid out her policy agenda.
Yet, unlike Obama, who skillfully presents himself as both a Black candidate and a racial unifier, Clinton didn't find a way--however implicit--to present herself as the first viable female presidential candidate. Perhaps that's because her primary message has been experience and competence--two traits that don't lend themselves to a platform of running against sexist barriers. Or is it because the legacy of racism is a more attractive target to most Americans than the weight of sexism?
Obama brilliantly recognizes that most Americans, above all white Americans, want to be redeemed of the sin of racism. (How much they might sacrifice to do that is another matter.) In a nation where Martin Luther King is sometimes honored more for his dreams than for his real-world activism for social justice, Obama will have to work hard to avoid falling into the same trap.
It is far too early to pronounce the outcome of the primary season for the Democrats, especially for we New Yorkers who will not get to weigh in until February. But this much is clear: Obama has succeeded in presenting himself as the candidate who is lifted up by currents of history, a man of the present who can lead us to transcend the worst stains of our past. Hillary Clinton must do the same if she is to prevail.