Friday 29 August 2008

Looking for the promised land

Barack Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention showed that he has heeded his critics, tempering his grandiose oratory both with policy specifics and stories of the ordinary working people whose votes he needs aggressively to court. To be sure, if he was attempting humility, the odds were stacked against him - speaking, as he was, in front of grand Roman columns, before 84,000 placard-waving, adoring fans, 45 years to the day after Dr King's "I have a Dream" speech.

But the way he chose to echo Dr King is illustrative of Obama's sensitivity to the "elitist", "celebrity" problem the Republicans have constructed for his candidacy. He spoke of King only mutedly, referring to him anonymously - "the preacher" - and quoting him just once, stressing the imperative to not "turn back" from the need to fix the economy, and educate America's children. Where King had been to the mountain-top and stared out at the promised land, Obama was anxious to stay on firm ground (something, nevertheless, he had trouble with: witness the last minutes of the speech, where, referring to King, he almost succumbs to the temptation to fall into those tremulous, soaring, religious cadences).

It's interesting to see how Obama's problem is diametrically opposed to that of Labour's. Where Obama deftly weaves his uniting theme of "The American Promise" through his speech (a promise, we are to understand, on which Republicans have reneged), Labour struggle to incorporate the flux of political events into a convincing narrative that can tell voters just who Labour are, and what they are for. Gordon Brown needs to be discouraged from concentrating on policy minutiae; Obama needs to be encouraged. Of course, Labour are more world-weary than Obama, having been in government for 11 years. British voters, too, are more cynical and more resistant to "promised land" hyperbole. But if Labour is to have any hope at all of regaining the political initiative, it must have a go at finding a progressive narrative to counter both electoral cynicism and Tory "broken society" rhetoric.

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