What Obama proved, so far
His claim as a change agent passed a test in beating the 'inevitable.' Now for the next test.
With just enough delegates to claim his party's nomination, Barack Obama has also made a second claim: That he has proved he can achieve change, not just talk about it. He beat the once "inevitable" front-runner of the Democratic establishment. But only barely.
And that leaves Hillary Clinton, or at least her legacy in inspiring women and blue-collar voters, as the next challenge for Mr. Obama and his assertion of being an agent of change. Can he graciously find a role for her and unite a party that just fought a very long primary contest, one that revealed sharp divisions of gender, race, and class?
The answer may lie in one reason for his historic upset. He tried to change the nature of campaigning, from one of personal smears, a-slap-for-a-slap, and chameleon-like pandering to a more elevated tone. Again, though, he only barely succeeded in doing that against the Clinton camp's old-style politicking. Normally cool under fire, he often retaliated when he didn't need to.
Still, his message of political conciliation hit a mood among Democrats and independents who want to tone down the super-partisanship of Washington. How did he know this? He kept his ear close to the party's roots. He traveled the country widely in 2006, developed an Internet strategy and, like a startup airline, he targeted the places that the dominant candidate ignored, the smaller states. He touched an enthusiasm among activists who showed up strong in caucuses.
She ran by the polls, he seemed to run by instinct. She cited her dynastic stature and Washington experience, he portrayed himself as the outsider and the new face of hope. She expected quick victory, he played for the long haul.
By their mere identity – he as a black, she as a woman – the two were symbols of change. In a party that plays to identity politics, the extra votes that each gained from their born identities were effectively neutralized. He won the black vote, she the women's vote. As each became a viable nominee, each broke historical barriers – for his race, for her gender. But that wasn't enough.
They were also both equally damaged by baggage from their associates – the inappropriate comments of his former pastor and of her husband. And with little dividing them on ideology – except on healthcare and Iraq – there was only the question of whether Obama's claim to a "new politics" would win over Clinton's 1990s style of politics. It did.
TV pundits, of course, may have played a role, with many giving Obama slack for his mistakes while savaging Clinton for hers. That bias revealed that a candidate's gender is still too easy a target. But whether it cost her votes, or rallied more feminists, remains unclear. At the least, it shows blatant sexism in the media is far more prevalent than blatant racism.
"Change" is more than style and ideas. Obama also showed his ability to organize at the grass roots and to raise $265 million. Still, he won by a squeaker. His claim he'll be a unifying president faces an immediate, post-primary test in rallying his party to that ideal.
If he can remake Democrats into a team, he'll then be tested on his claim of doing the same for the country.