Plus Ça Change We Can Believe In
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 25, 2008; A15
The unsurprising moderation of Barack Obama has caught many people by surprise. At this point, he seems intent on restoring a version of the old Clinton presidency -- Hillary Clinton running foreign policy, Robert Rubin's ensemble running the economy, Bill Richardson at Commerce and nary a certified cut 'n' runner on Iraq anywhere in sight. The erstwhile "change" candidate seems intent on vindicating that old French expression: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Oui.
What is surprising is that any of this should come as a surprise. All during the primary campaign, the main difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton was supposedly Iraq. This was the issue that propelled him to victory in Iowa, and this was the issue that stoked his supporters to paroxysms of enthusiasm. One candidate was for peace and the other was for the war -- and that was all there was to it.
Not quite. There was always a synaptic gap between Obama's ethereal image and his more grounded reality, and the sneaking suspicion that he and Clinton were not all that far apart on anything -- Iraq included. He conceded as much before the presidential race began. "I think very highly of Hillary," he told New Yorker editor David Remnick in 2006. "The more I get to know her, the more I admire her." In that same interview, Obama even narrowed the gap on Iraq: "I was running for the U.S. Senate, she had to take a vote, and casting votes is always a difficult test." In other words, who knows?
This is not to suggest that Obama thought the war in Iraq was really a good thing. It does suggest, though, that he recognized that the issue was never an easy one, and had he not represented a dovish Chicago district in the Illinois Senate, he might well have expressed a more nuanced opposition. After all, not a single one of Obama's U.S. Senate rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination voted against authorizing the war. Two of them are now about to play prominent roles in shaping and executing Obama's foreign policy -- Joe Biden, the vice president-elect, and Clinton, the presumptive secretary of state. As for the economy, a third Clinton administration would probably have looked like an Obama first: Lawrence Summers doing macro, Timothy Geithner doing micro and both of them making late-night calls to Bob Rubin in New York.
What, then, can explain the length and bitterness of the Democratic primary campaign? For the answer, we must look not to some talking head, but to Sigmund Freud and his phrase "the narcissism of small differences." By this, he meant the antipathy we feel toward people who resemble us. To an outsider, this explains the age-old Protestant-Catholic enmity or the proclivity of Shiites and Sunnis to slaughter one another. It also explains why Clinton and Obama supporters were at each other's throats. With the exception of the candidates themselves, they had so few differences. This is why so many Obama supporters despised Hillary Clinton -- and were despised in return.
Remember that? Remember when Clinton had no integrity, no character, when she lied about almost everything and could be trusted about almost nothing? Remember when she was excoriated for diabolically exonerating Obama of the charge that he was, secretly and very ominously, a Muslim by belling her cat of a remark with the portentous phrase "as far as I know"? And remember when her husband had supposedly revealed himself to be a racist? That was a calumny, a libel and a ferocious mugging of memory itself. But it was believed.
As is sometimes the case with passionate love, one can look back after a campaign and wonder: What was that all about? Usually, the passion of the campaign is shared by the candidates themselves and, for sure, their staffs. They live in a bubble infected by rumor and suspicion, a latter-day Borgian court of intrigue. But with Obama, he seemed always to distance himself from the heat of the campaign and to look down at it, as he did with that immense crowd in Berlin, as being of short-term use.
A presidential campaign is really a government looking for a parking space. Obama's campaign showed us a candidate of maximum cool. He has always remained ironically detached, and that has served him -- and now us -- very well indeed. It's now clear that he will not govern from the left and not really from the center but, as his campaign suggested, from above it all.