Beyond Electability

Megan McArdle, expressing some cynicism about Barack Obama:

I'm watching his speech now, and it's inspiring. But it's also saddening, because deep down, I don't believe that Obama is going to change Washington, eliminate lobbying, etc. I wish he wouldn't tell me things that I can't possibly believe--and moreover that I can't really understand anyone believing. He might be the best president; he might even make Washington work a little better, though I kind of doubt it. But he isn't going to transform American politics in the utopian way his speech implies. No one who has dried out behind the ears could reasonably believe that he has this power. So why is he saying he does?

Andrew has a good response, but another thing I like about Obama is that Megan's listening to this speech and she doesn't really agree with what he's saying, but she's not snorting with derision. She's listening. She thinks it's inspiring. Meanwhile, like anyone who writes about political and economic issues for a living, her opinions on these things are much more fixed and coherent than are the average American's. Most people, by contrast, are relatively open to persuasion -- if the argument is made by a persuasive figure.

And that's one of the things Obama has that Hillary Clinton doesn't. If instead of Clinton or Obama, I were the one sitting in the White House, and I had some kind of appealing-but-controversial initiative I wanted to propose and for some reason I had to pick a Senator to be the "public face" of the initiative I'd pick Obama in a heartbeat. He's the kind of person whose support for an idea makes the idea seem more compelling than it otherwise would have. You can imagine him getting people interested in things that didn't previously interest them, or convincing people that steps they used to think were too risky are, in fact, necessary. Clinton, like lots of perfectly admirable Senators from Carl Levin to Jim Jeffords and beyond, doesn't have that extra bit. It's the difference between a person who has to change his policies to become more popular, and a person who makes policies more popular by espousing them. Obviously, that's a quality that exists on a continuum, but Obama seems to me to be much further toward the "makes more popular by espousing" side of the spectrum.