Talkin' 'Bout My New Generation
Barack Obama says the baby boomers' time has passed. Many voters seem to agree with himso far
Barack Obama has spent the past two weeks in splendid seclusion, far away from the campaign trail, in Hawaii. The Illinois senator caught up on family news with his grandmother and sister, who live on Oahu, played golf with pals, and, if the past is any guide, engaged in some fierce Scrabble. This is the way Obama has spent Christmas for many years.
But this time, there's been a big difference. Topic A was a momentous onedeciding, after talking with his wife, Michelle, relatives, friends, and advisers, whether to run for president in 2008. He is expected to enter the race, and he plans to announce his decision in the next few weeks.
But regardless of whether he runs, the intensity of Obama-mania suggests that the political and societal forces he representsparticularly a desire for new ideas, new faces, and a less rancorous brand of discoursewill shape the next election. Other Democratic presidential wannabes are testing the same themes, including former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who announced last week, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. But so far, it is Obama who has ridden the desire for change the furthest and the fastest. The 45-year-old freshman senator has come within striking distance of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the national polls for the Democratic nomination, is running even with her in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, and has quickly developed a reputation as one of the most charismatic politicians in years.
"I think there is a great hunger for change in the countryand not just policy change," Obama told U.S. News. "What I also think they are looking for is change in tone and a return to some notion of the common good and some sense of cooperation, of pragmatism over ideology. I'm a stand-in for that right now."
Comparisons. In his new book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama makes a rather audacious comparisonindirectly raising the prospect that he has a generational appeal reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's in 1960 and signaling that he is ready to capitalize on baby boomer fatigue. "The politics of today suffers from a case of arrested development," Obama writes. "In the back-and-forth between [President Bill] Clinton and [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generationa tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long agoplayed out on the national stage. The victories that the Sixties generation brought aboutthe admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties, and the healthy willingness to question authorityhave made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptionsthat quality of trust and fellow feelingthat bring us together as Americans."
One of his objectives, it seems, is to set himself apart from Hillary Clinton. "Hillary Clinton is very much a creature of the 1960s and the 1970s, when she came of age," says Boston University historian Julian Zelizer. Obama seems to be trying to pigeonhole her as a politician stuck in the past.
Presidential scholar Robert Dallek, a biographer of President Kennedy, told U.S. News that Obama's talk about generational change is "very shrewd. He's making a connection to Kennedy, and Kennedy also represented a new generationyoung, vital, dynamic, very bright, articulate, and upbeat, a new face on the scene. What also serves Obama well is the tremendous frustration and disappointment with Bush."
Dallek points out that Obama additionally offers a new version of the African-American story: "He's not part of the slave history. He is part of the immigrant experience. This gives him a different image for many people."
And there certainly is a market for change. Sixty-nine percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, according to the latest Gallup Poll. Seventy-four percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. President Bush's job-approval ratings are hovering at about 35 percent.
Says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who advised independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992: "Everyone can see themselves in Obama. ... He is the definition of the American dream, the definition of the American promise." Conservatives see him as clean-cut and businesslike, Luntz says, while moderates see him as a problem solver. Liberals see him as a man from a multicultural background who breaks down racial and other barriers.
Still, Obama has a long way to go. Most Americans have no idea what he stands for. And if he fails to quickly flesh out his own agenda, he will open himself up to charges that, with only two years in the Senate and no national security background, he is too inexperienced and superficial to be president just yet.
Some political veterans are reminded of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's insurgent challenge to ex-Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984. Campaigning on themes of new ideas and a new generation, Hart won the New Hampshire Democratic primary but then faded after Mondale began mocking him with the slogan of a hamburger chain: "Where's the beef?" The same question might be asked of Obamaa point made by Hart in his recent review of Obama's book in the New York Times. Noting that Obama's book lacks a "strategic sense," Hart observes that "the media age has been known, as he wisely recognizes, to devour what it doth create."
Melting pot. But the freshman Democrat has some things going for him that Hart lacked. For one, Senator Clinton isn't as popular among rank-and-file Democrats as Mondale was at the time. For another, Obama's biography is more compelling than Hart's. Born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961, he is the son of a black father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., from Kenya (he is named after his dad), and a white mother, Ann Dunham, from Kansas. He identifies himself more with the immigrant's experience widely shared by countless millions of Americans than with the heritage of slavery and African-American oppression that has been shared by prominent black politicians at the national level, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
And Obama is an achiever. He graduated magna cum laude in 1991 from Harvard Law School (where he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review), practiced civil rights law in Chicago, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for a decade. He served in the Illinois state Senate for eight years and became a sensation when he delivered a dramatic call for conciliation in the keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He is now the fifth African-American to have served in the U.S. Senateand the only black there now. He and his wife have two daughters, Malia, 8, and Sasha, 5.
Obama has amassed a mostly left-of-center voting record. The nonpartisan National Journal ranks him as more liberal than 82.5 percent of the Senate, compared with 79.8 percent for Senator Clinton. The American Conservative Union says he voted with its position only 8 percent of the time, compared with 83 percent for a Republican presidential contender, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The AFL-CIO rates him at 92 percent. He opposed the war in Iraq and favors some forms of gun control. But he has demonstrated an occasional independent streak, voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and working with Republicans on a few issues, such as legislation he co-sponsored with GOP Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana to limit the spread of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons that could be used by terrorists.
On December 10, in his debut speech in New Hampshire, Obama said, "America is ready to turn the page. America is ready for a new set of challenges. This is our time. A new generation is prepared to lead."
That was just what Megan Gregory wanted to hear. The 24-year-old schoolteacher and political independent from Penacook, N.H., who was standing at the back of the big crowd, said, "I'm sick to death of the world being run by baby boomers and their agenda. Baby boomers spend all their time worrying about themselves and their issues. Barack Obama is concerned with people my age. We have different concerns than they have. I'm up to my neck in student loan debt. I don't think Social Security will be there for us. Jobs are being shipped overseas. Nobody seems to care."
Hazel Birnie of Manchester, N.H., 82, also attended the Obama speech. "He speaks the truth," said Birnie, a retired Western Union employee. She added that Obama reminded her of Kennedy, a hero from her youth. That's not a bad place for a presidential candidate to start.
This story appears in the January 8, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.