At a campaign rally in Rhode Island, Hillary Clinton– using unusually heavy sarcasm– mocked the rhetoric of Barack Obama:
Let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect. Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.
On the surface, Hillary Clinton is correct. It’s true that no one will change Washington by inspiring the people there to get along. No amount of rhetoric will get a group of 50, 60, 70-year-old career politicians with deeply-entrenched financial and power interests to change their behavior out of patriotism or the goodness of their hearts.
But this is far from what Barack Obama is proposing. When Obama talks about bringing people together, what he’s really proposing is bringing the American people together. Because when you bring the American people together, you will force the people in Washington together.
Most of the major reforms in American history came about through leaders changing public opinion, with Washington then following suit. Some presidents have accomplished this through fearmongering (such as George W. Bush’s run-up to the Iraq War) while others have relied on inspiration (such as John F. Kennedy and the space program). But whatever the means, major reforms like the ones both Obama and Clinton are proposing– universal health care, an end to the Iraq War, and an Apollo-level energy independence project– will not be passed without the overwhelming consent of the American people.
While Obama has proposed a plan for changing public opinion and demonstrated an ability to do so, Clinton has done neither. The irony is that between the two of them, it is Clinton whose rhetoric suggests a strategy of miraculously being able to manipulate Washington. She frequently claims to possess “the experience to bring about change,” the subtext being that she has learned how to work the political system and will be able to get her way in the White House, seemingly regardless of public opinion. Her track record using this strategy– most notably, the failed health care initiative in 1993– is shaky at best.
Perhaps the best historical anecdote on the subject of reform involves a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Civil Rights leaders in the 1940s:
During the council of elders in Atlanta, Harry Belafonte, who is not only a great folk singer, but also a marvelous and wonderful humanitarian, shared that one of his heroes is Eleanor Roosevelt. He said that Eleanor Roosevelt invited him to the White House along with Black leaders such as the distinguished A. Phillip Randolph. At the dinner table with President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, A. Phillip Randolph stood to list a litany of abuses of Black people and a litany of things that President Roosevelt could do to ease those abuses. Mr. Belafonte said when A. Phillip Randolph finished, the president did not speak immediately. He opened a box of cigars, passed cigars around to everyone at the table, and then said to A. Phillip Randolph, “Everything that you said about the abuses of your people I agree with and everything that you said I could do to end those abuses, I agree with. But Phillip, there’s something that I want you to do.” Mr. Randolph asked, “what is that, Mr. President?” and President Roosevelt said to A. Phillip Randolph, “Go and make me do it.”
And indeed, the Civil Rights Movement, through the inspirational leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, shamed the institution of racism, changed public opinion, and eventually made Washington do it.
Likewise, Barack Obama is challenging those who desire sweeping changes in America to get behind his campaign, do the necessary civil groundwork for themselves, and make the people in Washington do it. Hillary Clinton is challenging those who want change to trust her to get it done.
One of these strategies has been successful in this campaign– as evidenced by the Obama campaign’s unparalleled volunteer organization (leading to victories in 10 of 11 caucus states) and the estimated $60 million a month Obama is now raising through small donors (numbering nearly a million individuals). On the other hand, Hillary Clinton and her “trust me to handle it” strategy has led to a campaign that has lost all but one caucus state and quickly run out of money, as most large corporate donors have legally maxxed out.
But more importantly, one of these strategies has been successful in bringing about sweeping reforms in American history, and the other has not. Which leads one to believe that perhaps the real naïveté in this campaign, the real presumption lies not in Barack Obama’s unifying rhetoric, but in the cynical audacity of Hillary Clinton’s hopelessness.