Dominic Lawson: There's nothing new about Barack Obama

For all his virtues Obama has never said or done anything which challenges 'politics as usual'
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Barack Obama is the new, new thing. There's been nothing like him ever before in American politics, apparently. The old style of pork-barrel vote-buying has been cast aside by a man who will appease no special interest groups. In a battle for the presidency with the 71-year-old Republican John McCain, we all know who will represent the decisive break with the 'old politics'. Or do we?

Over the past fortnight Barack Obama has done whatever it takes to capture Ohio and Texas, and thereby seal the Democrat nomination. In Ohio, where traditional manufacturing jobs have been hit by foreign competition, Obama has savaged the North American Free Trade Agreement, (one of Bill Clinton's signal achievements). He has said that, as President of the United States, he will pull out of the agreement with Mexico and Canada unless those two countries agree to it being rewritten along what the Wall Street Journal describes as "Yankee terms".

Yet, according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press, one of Obama's advisors has hastened to reassure anxious Canadian consular officials that while "protectionist sentiment has emerged, particularly in the Midwest during the primary campaign, this messaging should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."

Or, in other words, don't worry, Barack Obama doesn't mean what he says – this is just old-fashioned electioneering. Obama has been relatively silent about Nafta in Texas, which has benefited dramatically from the increased trade with Mexico. On the other hand he has come out specifically against "open trucking" with Mexico, in which freight lorries would drive across the border instead of unloading onto American trucks. As the Financial Times managed to report with a straight face: "Obama's new stance coincided with the endorsement of the Teamsters union, which is opposed to competition in road freight." Ah, politics as usual.

To be fair to Obama, he is not inconsistent – unlike Mrs Clinton, who desperately fibbed that she had never been in favour of Nafta. Obama is one of three Congressional sponsors of a piece of proposed legislation called "The Patriot Employer Act": it offers tax credits to what it terms "patriotic" companies – apparently those which "maintain or increase the number of full-time workers in the United States relative to the number of full-time workers outside of the United States." The credit would be paid out of greater taxes on profits earned abroad by US firms.

This extraordinary attempt to discourage "unpatriotic" American companies from investing overseas will almost certainly not pass into law; but then economic nationalism has never been a bad ploy during an election year.

We must hope that the remarks of Obama's advisor to those Canadian officials have been accurately reported: as the 1930s demonstrated, the surest way to turn a US financial recession into a world-wide industrial depression is for America to adopt a policy of outright protectionism.It would be quite wrong to accuse Obama of being blind to the virtues of foreign investment into the US, however. An investigation published last week in USA Today revealed how Obama's presidential campaign has accepted a donation of £27,000 from members of a law firm that in 2006 successfully lobbied him to introduce a tax concession for a Japanese drug company with operations in Illinois. This was an example of the congressional practice of suspending import taxes on specific products at the request of individual companies. Obama, who has decried the "Washington game" in which "lobbyists write check after check and Exxon makes record profits", declined to be interviewed by USA Today on its story, though one of his spokesmen said that he "introduced these bills to help Illinois companies get products they need." The Japanese company concerned was seeking the tax break on an ingredient it imports from Switzerland.

It employed two lobbyists with the Chicago firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman. Associates at Katten have given a total of £39,000 to Obama's campaigns. By contrast, John McCain's spokeswoman told the newspaper that the Republican presidential candidate does not introduce tariff suspension bills because of "his longstanding policy – no private relief bills or any bills for one person."

You see, John McCain had been an outspoken critic of the corrupting nature of political funding in the US long before Barack Obama ever arrived on the scene. The senior senator from Arizona has for many years shown a remarkable political courage in challenging powerful interests within his own Republican party.

Most notably, during the battle for the Republican nomination in 2000 he attacked the religious right, and singled out the tele-evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance...corrupting influences on religion and politics." Extraordinarily, McCain chose to make this speech in Virginia, a stronghold of the religious right.

Last week McCain continued to demonstrate his refusal to pander to the easy option: at a rally he openly criticised his own warm-up man, a radio chat-show host, for making a joke about Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein. The chat-show host in question later issued a furious statement, saying he was "through with McCain" and would urge his listeners not to support him for the Presidency.

Most admirably of all, McCain was the prime legislative force opposing the US government's inhumane treatment of captives in Guantanamo Bay. Obviously his own experiences as a victim of torture at the hands of the Viet Cong gave him a unique authority to tackle President Bush on this matter, but there is little doubt that the Republican heartland's sympathies would have been with the Waterboarder-in-Chief in the White House – and McCain knew it.

For all his evident political virtues – an astonishing physical presence, high intelligence and an unmatched ability to inspire with a simple vision—Obama has never yet said or done anything in this campaign which challenges 'politics as usual'. His beautifully crafted speeches are full of the familiar clichés about the "American dream".

"There's nothing that an American can't achieve by hard work" says Obama, at rally after rally. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that eternally optimistic call for political support – but there's nothing remotely new or challenging in it either.

Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect anyone running for the Presidency to behave any differently from the way in which Barack Obama has in his campaign. After all, it has been astonishingly successful, which is the first requirement of any political enterprise. Yet just because it has been so successful, we must not fall into the trap of believing all the claims it makes for itself – and for its great figurehead.

Meanwhile, consider the less ostentatious virtues of John McCain. The American people certainly will.