The Changeling

Illustration by Darrow

The Barack Obama who arrived in New Hampshire the morning of January 4 was the same Barack Obama who awoke in Iowa the previous day wondering, no doubt, if his bid for the White House might soon effectively be over―except, of course, that in the eyes of the world, he now looked like a conceivable, indeed a probable, president of the United States. This transformation happens a couple of times every four years, but in Obama’s case, it was more than usually hard to get one’s head around, given the world-historical meaning and uplift with which it was freighted.

The moment was so dazzling, in fact, that it obscured a simple truth: Obama is still a political work-in-progress. His vulnerabilities are real and not terribly difficult to discern. And even his strengths are about to be placed under ungodly strain by two of the greatest quantum forces in the political universe: the weight of unparalleled expectations and the Clinton hit machine.

Sepia-toned histories may recount Obama’s stand in Iowa as an inexorable march to victory―but it didn’t look that way early on New Year’s Eve, when he spoke in a high-school gym in Iowa Falls. In December alone, I had witnessed maybe a dozen renditions of Obama’s stump speech. And never had I seen him deliver a performance more desultory or less compelling. Clearly exhausted, eyelids drooping, forgetting his punch lines, Obama somnambulated through his allocution, took a few questions, and then tacked on a little man-of-the-people coda―a remembrance of the days when he and his wife were living in a too-small house, without a college fund for the kids, struggling to save for their retirement. “It hasn’t been that long,” Obama said, “since we were going through what you go through.”

Obama’s populist pivot, echoed in his late TV ads, reflected a perception shared by all three top-tier Democratic campaigns on the cusp of the caucuses: that John Edwards was surging, his strident anti-corporate message draining away the support of downscale male voters from Obama. Suddenly, the Illinois senator (Columbia ’83, Harvard Law School ’91) was awkwardly aping Edwards’s neo-populist shtick, talking about how “Michelle still goes to Target!”

Then, two hours later, the Des Moines Register released its final poll―and blew everybody’s mind. The poll put Obama in first, ahead of Hillary Clinton by 7 points and Edwards by 8. The wails of Clinton and Edwards operatives could be heard above the clink of Champagne flutes all over Des Moines. Just before midnight, Edwards strategist Joe Trippi piled into the steakhouse booth where my wife and I were sitting and explained in numbing detail the glaring flaws in the poll’s methodology: too many independents, too many first-time voters, the assumption of an overall turnout that defied the laws of caucus physics. On the afternoon of the caucuses, a senior Clinton campaign official told me he reckoned that the over/under turnout number was 165,000.

That the actual number was 239,000, a staggering 91 percent rise over 2004, and that more than half of caucusgoers were first-timers, says much about the level of energy among Democrats this year. But it says even more about the Obama operation: that it was willing to bet the house against the ossified wisdom that such a turnout, both in size and texture, was impossible.

What else did the Obama people get right in Iowa? They developed an organization, from a standing start eleven months ago, that was the class of the field. They figured out the delicate trick of going negative without seeming nasty. Even during the summer, when Obama seemed listless and Clinton apparently unstoppable, they never panicked, never lost their patience.

Having not only won but also relegated Clinton to third place, Obama is clearly in the catbird seat for at least the next three weeks. In New Hampshire, he is sure to benefit from the independent vote, which makes up 40 percent of the New Hampshire electorate. (Obama claimed 41 percent of Iowa independents; Clinton, 17.) Moreover, the Edwards campaign, now in slash-and-burn survival mode, is more likely to train its fire on a crippled Clinton than on an ascendant Obama. Two weeks later, there’s South Carolina, where fully half of Democratic voters are black―voters who may now flock to the first plausible African-American presidential candidate in history.

But Clinton’s bid, as her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, said after the caucuses, “was built for a marathon.” (Or, as one rival operative put it to me, “They’ll start a fucking third party before they’ll give up on putting her in the White House.”) Already the campaign is looking beyond New Hampshire to states where only Democrats can vote in the party’s primaries. In fact, some of her surrogates seem to be readying an argument that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire should be discounted because of the participation of independents. One close friend of hers and former adviser to her husband warned darkly in an e-mail to me about the dangers of “non-Democrats having such influence on who the Democratic nominee is.” This argument, it should be said, is problematic on multiple levels. On the merits, the notion that there is something flawed about a system that compels the candidates to appeal to voters beyond the Democratic base―a block that is essential to winning a general election―is about as bassackwards as they come. And strategically it’s equally foolish, for it shines a klieg light on Clinton’s weakness (and Obama’s strength) in the area of electability.

But Clinton has other, better arguments that she can make―and ones that may cut more ice coming from an underdog than from the Queen of Inevitability. Though change soundly trumped experience in Iowa, Hillary’s advantage in the latter department will become more salient as Obama commits his first major gaffe as a front-runner. The Clinton team will also hammer away at Obama on substance: his at times maddening programmatic vagueness, his focus on process over bottom-line deliverables, the thinness of his policy accomplishments―all of which, I can attest, become more vividly apparent the more one hears him speak.

Such a strategy may sound like the one Walter Mondale used to beat back Gary Hart in 1984. And Clinton’s campaign has often been scored (and scorned) for its Mondale-esque qualities: for its caution and myopia, staleness and arch-Establishmentarianism. But certain aspects of Mondale’s counteroffensive were devastatingly effective, and might be profitably updated and reapplied. Recall, please, “Where’s the beef?”―a motif that was as much or more about Hart’s character as it was about policy. And make no mistake, the Clinton team is likely to unleash its fullest fury to demolish Obama’s character similarly.

Obama, of course, is no Hart. Young, fresh, centrist, running on change-change-change? Totally. But disorganized and underfunded? Hardly. And Obama now occupies a position that Hart never did: The race is his to lose. Yet arguably the thing that cost Hart most dearly was when, under assault by Mondale, he launched negative ads against the old warhorse that tarnished his image as unconventional, virtuous, supraordinary. Today, that image belongs to Obama. It may be his supreme asset. The question is whether he can retain it in the face of a strafing the ferocity of which he can only scarcely imagine.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

The Changeling