Hillary Clinton’s strong performance in winning three of four primaries on March 4 is possibly Barack Obama’s biggest test. When Obama began his campaign, most acknowledged that he was an attractive candidate and had a very promising future. Very few believed that he would win on his first try. Clinton’s experience and notoriety would be difficult to offset in a year where Democrats wanted to win the White House at all cost. The year 2007 confirmed Hillary’s advantage as she breezed through the debates, showing poise and knowledge of policies and facts. By December 2007, Mrs. Clinton had a double digit lead over her closest rival. The only surprise was that her closest rival was Barack Obama.
Obama’s success can be traced to a strong grassroots campaign, an ability to tap into the desire for change and the capacity to mobilize young people. His message of hope and transformational change has captured the imagination of the Democratic Party base. His early success in Iowa catapulted him to the front of the line. Soon it was Clinton who had to catch up.
Throughout February, Obama’s message seemed to cross race, gender, demographics and geography. As his support grew, you could feel an energy that America had been yearning for since the days of Kennedy’s Camelot. Eleven victories in a row, a lead in pledged delegates, double the number of states won, and an important lead in popular vote transformed the long shot candidate of 2007 into the frontrunner of 2008. It is fair to say that the moment has defined the candidate, and the candidate’s campaign seems to resemble more a movement than a conventional quest for the nomination of his party. Now his momentum has stalled. Last Tuesday’s results indicate the formidable nature of the Clinton machine and its ability to come back. Negative campaigning by Hillary and self-inflicted errors by Barack have resulted in a contest that may well last into late spring. No candidate will win the nomination on the basis of pledged delegates. Super delegates will end up playing a decisive role.
The current situation is a test of Obama’s character as well as his ability to win. Right now, he has a lead and has the prospect of winning the nomination. But how he responds to the attacks on his qualifications and his abilities will determine whether he has the capacity to win in November and ultimately assume the presidency.
The leader of a “change movement” needs to be inspirational and needs to appeal to the best qualities of his followers. He must be able to translate his concept of change into something meaningful for the lives of his followers and fellow citizens. Obama’s charisma and his oratory has captured the imagination of many Americans. But the leader of a change movement must never forget that he will be facing resistance and obstacles. Inspiration alone is not sufficient. Resilience and toughness when faced with adversity are also part of the makeup of a leader of a change movement. This is why I believe it is important Obama be tested as he currently is to see his ability to translate lofty ideals into concrete reality. Policies are important but movements are usually personality driven. People judged the character of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, not so much by what they proposed but by who they were. They faced tough challenges and much resistance and ultimately triumphed. Obama’s candidacy is nowhere close to the above mentioned movements but the similarity rests with the ability to respond to adversity in times of peril.
Obama must be aggressive in responding to Clinton’s attacks and must challenge Clinton on her credentials and her affirmations. While he cannot become a proponent of “old politics” and focus group tested attacks, he must display toughness because the Republicans and ultimately the perils of the world await him. If he cannot rebound and recapture his momentum after losing three of four primaries, then it is better Democrats know now and not later. This is not going to be just a battle for delegates. Obama’s recipe for success has always rested with his character. We have seen until now some very attractive traits of his character such as his ability to inspire, his ability to express a vision, his ability to mobilize and his overall authenticity. But that will not be enough. He needs to show the toughness required of leaders faced with adversity. The moment has arrived.