It’s generally acknowledged that Hillary Clinton’s campaign has stalled on the wrong side of a charisma gap. The Democratic electorate has surged to follow Barack Obama, and yet this doesn’t signal that Hillary is unpopular — she still earns a high favorability rating. Nor does she suffer by comparison on issues of substance; if anything, she’s ahead. But Obama has done something very difficult for an inspirational campaigner. He’s kept building support. Enthusiasm isn’t waning as the first glow of infatuation fades. This is testimony to Obama’s integrity, a much used word in politics that rarely matches reality.
All observers agree that the secret to his inspiration is a hunger for change. But there’s a difference between “throw the bums out” change and “restore America” change. What one hopes for is the second kind. It’s much harder, but it’s also more practical, since it brings together problems and solutions. To deliver such change, charisma must cross over into realism. Some observers doubt that Obama is capable of that; they’ve taken a show-me attitude. Powerful politicians and entrenched interest groups lie in wait to bloody his idealism. I hope Obama doesn’t make the mistake of Jimmy Carter, who swept in on charisma but squandered his popular appeal by shrinking the expectations of the presidency, lecturing the public instead of leading it and offering little vision for solving difficult problems like stagflation, OPEC, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Obama will need to retool his charisma without losing it, because 80% of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, which implies that restoring America has reached critical mass.
What should America be restored to? First, a pre-Iraq status as a friendly power without military and ideological agendas. Second, a global leader on climate change. Third, a secular republic in which preachers don’t have influence over government policy. In one way or another, both Democratic contenders, Clinton and Obama, would make huge strides on all three fronts, and in addition they would repair the social safety net by providing health care reform.
Yet there’s a further step that only Obama can make, because it will take every ounce of charisma and then some — the end of nuclear arsenals and a steady dismantling of the arms industry. On the first point, eradicating nukes from the planet, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and other elder statesmen have already given their support. The U.S. has no credibility left in keeping nuclear weapons from spreading to more and more countries. The only solution is for all stockpiles, large and small, to disappear. On the second point, dismantling the military-industrial complex, this country leads the world in arms dealing and manufacturing. We killed 150,000 Iraqis after terrorists killed 3,000 of our citizens on 9/11. This policy of massive retribution is horrifying, and so is the brute fact that the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 16 countries combined.
If Obama can use his integrity and charisma to break the stranglehold of military spending, if he can restore America to a semblance of being a non-threatening power to the rest of the world, he will have accomplished the greatest political feat since the New Deal, which gave a struggling country a new identity. We need a new identity even more today. Let’s hope that charisma extends that far.