West Wing: The Other Side of Barack Obama

By Gabor Steingart

Hillary Clinton is back: With triple victories on Tuesday night the fight for the Democratic nomination is tighter than ever. And her opponent's camp is fighting off a wave of negative publicity.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is under pressure after failing to win three primaries on Tuesday.
AFP

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is under pressure after failing to win three primaries on Tuesday.

Voting for Obama is like having an exciting love affair. He can be so stirring while Clinton can on occasion be downright annoying. He stands for passion, while she incorporates routine. He offers political poetry, she a raw realism.

"I was sad and blue, but you made me feel shiny and new," Madonna sings in "Like a Virgin." That's how Obama supporters feel. They have spent a series of euphoric election nights with him. That first victorious night in Iowa was followed by a dozen others, in South Carolina and beyond. "You're so fine and you're mine."

Hillary Clinton is a grounded woman, clever and sensible. While he cries "hope," she says: donít get carried away. When he calls for change, she turns the lights off.

She is now fighting the battle of her life. She has shown herself to be tenacious, tough and to have an extraordinary ability to stay the course, something that has impressed both friends and foes. According to the numbers, she may have trouble pulling out the nomination because she is behind her opponent in delegate votes. But Tuesday night showed that nothing is impossible. He is still attractive to voters, but no longer irresistible. The pill she offers is often bitter, but it is probably a necessary one. He is capable, but she is too.

The question now is: Will the extraordinary love affair between the young Senator from Chicago and the Democratic voters last? Or was the spell broken on Tuesday night? Will the voters turn back to her? Or will his charm offensive once again display its power?

In love, the first sight is followed by a second. The voters are not gamblers. Perhaps Tuesday's results are already a sign of their disillusionment following the new, less flattering light that has been shone on Barack Obama in recent days.

First of all: He is possibly not the man he pretends to be. In the industrial state of Ohio he has spent weeks railing against NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that Bill Clinton signed when he was president. Obama has blamed it for unemployment and the collapse of industry. At the same time his top economics advisor met with the Canadian general consul in Chicago to assure him that this was all electioneering -- Obama would stick to the free trade agreement. Canadian TV aired a story on the meeting. The advisor then said that he had been misunderstood. Perhaps it was lost in the translation, the Wall Street Journal joked.

Secondly: Obama is not just spiritual, he is material. As a politician in Chicago he was involved with the local businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko, perhaps too closely to suit his Messiah image. The one-time real estate king is currently in court following a three-year FBI investigation and faces charges including corruption and money laundering. Rezko was an early patron of Obama's. He donated money to Obama's campaign and encouraged others to do the same. Obama has since given this money to charity.

Furthermore, Obama has Rezko to thank for his mansion in south Chicago. In the summer of 2005 Obama had just been elected to the Senate, and wanted to buy the luxury home. It should have cost around $2 million but the realtor wanted to sell it together with an adjacent undeveloped lot, which would have cost another $625,000 -- too much for Obama. Then Rezko's wife got involved. She bought the piece of land at the full price, while Obama got his house for a $300,000 markdown. An act of friendship? Corruption? A normal move in the world of real estate tycoons? Obama said in 2006 and repeats to this day that is was "a boneheaded move."

Thirdly: "I say what I think, and do what I say," Obama says about himself. But it seems he is also just a politician, one who subordinates the truth to his own interests. The conversation between the economic advisor and the Canadian was denied -- until the TV story appeared.

He has had to correct his memory several times when it comes to the Rezko case, which the US media has only gradually started to show an interest in. At one stage he was aware of the FBI investigation into Rezko when he agreed to the house deal with his wife, and then he wasn't. First he said he had never discussed the house with Rezko, then he admitted that they had looked at it together.

It is not clear if Rezko introduced Obama to his Iraqi financial backer when he was in Chicago on a visit. He was part of Saddam Hussein's circle and was handed down a suspended sentence in the French Elf scandal. Obama says he has "no memory" of ever meeting him.

So far, he has refused any direct interviews with investigative journalists at the two Chicago dailies. Last week, they tried to confront him with details after a campaign event. Clearly irritated, Obama answered tersely. "C'mon guys, I just answered, like, eight questions," he told the reporters. The Washington Post commented, coolly: "The questioning, however, has only just begun."

Of course, love is always a question of the time of day and the lighting. And there is much to suggest that the love story between Obama and Democratic voters will not continue as romantically as it has up until now. The media has begun to take an interest in what the Chicago Sun dubs the "Teflon Obama." Hillary Clinton will also no doubt help them cast the klieg lights in order to best expose that side of Obama.

And the voters? They may continue to love their hero dearly -- or they may speedily return to her. Because many love-crazed affairs end, repentantly, where they started -- at home. Madonna sings: "Didn't know how lost I was."

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