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Is Barack Obama the New Bill Clinton?

Pundits from all corners have been cheering the prospect of a Clinton sundown. In the New York Times, William Kristol thanked Barack Obama, on behalf of the American public, for defeating Hillary in Iowa. On January 5, Tom Schaller blogged at the American Prospect: “Get your kids out and put them in front of the TV: The Clinton Era officially ended at 9:34 p.m. EST when Edwards paired with Obama to bury Hillary as a non-agent of change.” I too advertised my delight in disposing of the callous political weathervane that is the Clinton machine. Setting aside the plates of crow that may or may not await us clairvoyants, the question arises: What kind of improvement on the Bill and Hillary show have we a right to expect in the person of Barack Obama?

It’s a question kept comfortably at bay, as it contaminates the pure delight of a Hillary demise. But it demands attention. And it’s a question that’s led me to a troubling realization. In some of the most unfortunate ways, the Barack Obama phenomenon – that swell of adoration that lifted him up in Iowa to practically deposit him in the still-occupied White House – is cut frighteningly close to the Clinton mold. In particular, the fetishization of image and lack of conviction are all too familiar. Forget the talk of Bill Clinton having been the “first black president.” If Barack Obama wins in November we may best understand the coming age by thinking of him as the second President Clinton.

I first became suspicious of Obama’s charms when I found myself praising the Illinois junior senator without so much as a data point’s worth of evidence. “Unlike Hillary,” I heard myself say, “Obama at least believes in something.” It occurred to me, at once, that I had no sound reason for uttering this. And I was disturbed. The effortless oratory; the vast, glassy smile; the whole kinetic promise of the boy wonder rising – I’d been suckered.

In hopes of making myself less foolish, I turned to Andrew Sullivan’s December 2007 Atlantic Monthly piece on Obama entitled “Goodbye to All That.” I soon found that the most outrageous thing about calling Obama “articulate” is that it’s pretty much all there is to say about him. I once wrote: “To speak of the Clintons in terms of political ideology is to speak of gravity and inertia in terms of hair color.” In the case of Obama, to speak of political ideology is to speak of hair color. Or at least color. Sullivan writes that Obama’s face is “central to an effective war strategy.” And goes on: “Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man – Barack Hussein Obama – is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.”

Two points. First, Muslim extremists kill far more brown-skinned people than they do Caucasians. Second, this unabashed politics of the cosmetic makes Clinton charisma seem penetrating by comparison. I’ve come to believe that this “one simple image” impressionism is at the heart of the Obama rapture. When Obama supporters are asked why they chose their man they offer up a word salad including “hope,” “change,” “courage,” and “inclusiveness” only slightly less substantive than the candidate’s actual speeches. Interestingly, if you ask an old Bill Clinton fan what was great about Bubba you’ll get the same response.

This is because Obama, like Bill Clinton, is masterful at using those words as currency. Lest anyone think the word “change” has only been made nauseating in the first week of 2008, I offer this:

The most important distinction in this campaign is that I represent real hope for change, a departure. … But before I can do that, I must challenge the American people to change, and they must decide. … It’s time to change. I want to bring that change to the American people. But we must all decide first we have the courage to change for hope and a better tomorrow.

That’s Bill Clinton speaking in the first presidential debate of 1992. The pages of the transcript fairly stick together with change. Yet the man who’s being thanked for delivering us from this doggerel speaks from behind a podium with the words “Stand up for change” emblazoned on it, and delivers speeches entitled “Change We Can Believe In,” and has convinced Andrew Sullivan that in him “[w]e may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about.”

Although Sullivan requires only a one-man Benetton ad to see Clinton’s fancies made good, I think it’s worth examining Obama’s character. In this Wednesday’s New York Sun, Robert Samuelson singles out Barack Obama for failing to address the coming income transfer from young to old that will leave today’s American children overtaxed and underserved. Obama is not alone in having no plan of attack, but as Samuelson observers, “The hypocrisy is especially striking in Mr. Obama. He courts the young, promises ‘straight talk,’ and offers himself as the agent of ‘change.’ But his conspicuous omissions constitute ‘crooked talk’ and silently endorse the status quo.”

But there’s much worse. On July 20, 2007, the Associated Press reported “Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.” Forget the immediate depravity of such a pronouncement. The most disturbing and, not coincidentally, most Clintonesque aspect of the story is that Obama’s statement came a week after the New York Times‘ landmark editorial calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, genocide notwithstanding. This deference to popular opinion over humanity represents Clintonian moral calculus of a chilling potency.

What we’ve been witnessing in the Clinton Camp since his surge may be the most spectacular psychodrama to hit American politics since the days of Nixon. While this opera of tears spells good fun for the audience of Clinton-haters, it may ultimately spell some very bad news for those same members of the peanut gallery. Obama is an ace student of the Clintons and he knows their playbook by heart. Plus, he’s simply better at the game. He faces his indiscretions (pot, cocaine) squarely where Bill sidestepped his (pot, infidelity) poorly. He’s humble where the Clintons are defensive. His Ellen dance beats Bill’s Arsenio sax, his smile puts Bill’s lip bite to shame.

On the Charlie Rose Show recently, Bill Clinton said he’s “tickled” watching Obama stump. The word choice is interesting. A touch wistful. Fatherly, even. To be more precise, doesn’t “tickle” carry a vague sense of being resentfully amused, perhaps outdone, by one’s child?

Abe Greenwald is a fiction and non-fiction writer who lives in New York City.