West Wing: Obama's Romantic Revolution

By Gabor Steingart

Barack Obama's promises to heal the world were lapped up in Berlin on Thursday. His speech was a masterpiece in the art of political magic -- and it was all coolly calculated.

Barack Obama waves after his speech in Berlin on Thursday.
Getty Images

Barack Obama waves after his speech in Berlin on Thursday.

Barack Obama is often compared with a pop star these days. That makes the job of being a politician all the more difficult for him.

In show business the performance is the finished product, where reality and appearance come together as one. What you see is what you get, as the Americans say. There is no morning after.

For politicians, on the other hand, words are not actions, rather they are announcements of future actions, often actions to be claimed or even just simulated. Reality and appearance are in conflict, whether by accident or design.

"America stands alone as the world's indispensable nation," Bill Clinton said, when a bit of patriotism was required. "The world's greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies." His policies, however, were based on respect toward other people and not on triumphalism.

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us," said George W. Bush during the 2000 election campaign. The worthlessness of this statement is now well known. Back then he was believed.

It's not possible yet to compare Barack Obama's words with his deeds. His name is not connected with any legislative project or reform concept, not even a concert hall in his hometown of Chicago bears his name. Until now he has been more of a popular speaker than a politician.

What is true is that he can make a speech like no one else. On Thursday evening he delivered a masterpiece in the art of political magic. He promised to heal the wounds of the world, from Israel to the melting polar ice caps. He wants to reconcile the world's religions, bring black and white people closer together, Europeans and Americans too. The genocide in Darfur should be brought to an end and he wants to end the problems of globalization with global trade that is not just free but also fair.

It's possible to be impressed by all this -- or to find it shameless.

Nevertheless he chose well when he picked Berlin for the announcement of his grand vision of the world. Berlin is the world capital of the bold speech. Since the end of World War II Berlin has been American politicians' equivalent of Hyde Park's Speakers Corner in London, where anyone can get up on a soapbox and speak. In Berlin it is the great and mighty who make speeches, and as well as, recently, those who have yet to prove their greatness.

The 200,000 onlookers who thronged to listen to Obama's speech should not deceive us. Listening is not the same as agreeing. Obama divides people, and not along traditional party lines.

It is, anyway, a great mistake to divide the voters in Western nations into left and right, aggressive and peace-loving, market orientated and critical of capitalism. In reality there are just two types of voters: the romantic democrats and the common-sense democrats.

The first type -- the romantics -- love the big moments and the pretty words. They prefer the higher tone and look at a politician's mouth first. They often have nothing but contempt for pragmatic politicians.

Then there are the common-sense democrats, who look at a politician's hands first. They are interested in what the politician does, not in what he or she says. They look for records of success and concepts for change and are often allergic to political preaching. Has the government really worked flat out for the people or has everything just been made to look that way? Does the candidate have solid alternatives or is he just a dazzler?

So far, Obama has been the candidate for the romantics. His skill lies in enchanting his supporters with words. Whatever is held against him, his supporters turn into his favor. The man is an unknown quantity -- no mud sticks to him! The man is measured -- no, he is visionary! He wants to save the entire world -- but it does desperately need to be saved, doesn't it?

On pressing questions from common-sense democrats, he has so far offered no answers, partly because he is probably afraid of letting down the romantics.

Of course, common-sense democrats would like to know how he will wage war against climate change in a country that is about to tap new sources of oil off the coast of California and Florida and in which the survival of auto makers in Detroit depends on no upper limits for fuel consumption being imposed.

It would have been interesting to find out how the reconciliation between Muslims and Christians will come about, when shortly before his departure he threatened the Islamic Republic of Pakistan with a military strike against its border region with Afghanistan. Pakistanis value their sovereignty as much as Americans.

Is it not foolhardy to set a timeframe for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at 16 months, when American generals fear another civil war? In Vietnam, they point out, the killing did not end after the US withdrew its troops.

And then there is the breathtaking list of domestic policy promises: affordable health insurance for the 47 million currently unregistered Americans, tax exemptions for all retirees on pensions under $50,000, higher minimum wages, multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects and finally tax credits for most Americans to boost the economy. How can that be paid for, if -- as Obama has categorically ruled out -- he isn't going to raise taxes on the middle class? Or is he planning for the US to go even more into debt (something he has equally vehemently ruled out)?

Of course, Obama may have no option now than to continue to offer the sky. At first many election strategists thought voters wouldn't believe politicians' promises anymore after their experience with Bush. Surprisingly, the opposite seems to be the case: Right now they'll believe everything.

Obama was the first to realize that the romantics are currently in the majority. What sounds romantic to his voters, is something else for the presidential candidate: common sense.

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