Matthew Norman: Obama a belief-free zone? I don't believe so

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The Independent Online

The humble gonad made another foray into the effete world of US political debate this week, and for once the word wasn't cojones. Eschewing the inoffensive Hispanic, that remarkable man of God, Jesse Jackson, went on Fox And Friends – not a Basil Brush revival, sadly, but an offering from Rupert Murdoch's neo-con bully pulpit – to share his ambition for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

"See, Barack's been talking down to black people," observed his Reverence to a fellow guest, unaware his mic was still live. "I want to cut his nuts off." The response, from countless millions in America and beyond was Basil Fawlty's "You'll have sew to 'em back on first" – the received wisdom being that Obama has already sacrificed his liberal testes on the altar of electoral gain.

It is perfectly true that the junior Senator for Illinois has trimmed, nuanced and reversed enough positions of late to persuade those peppering the blogosphere with the charge of treachery that there are two ovular holes at the base of his knickers. He has applauded the Supreme Court ruling that Washington DC's ban on handguns was unconstitutional, modified his promise to withdraw all US troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, supported the execution of child rapists, reneged on his pledge to accept federal funding for the election campaign, and voted for amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which gave intelligence services wide powers of surveillance.

There have been other flip-flops already, and doubtless there are enough yet to come to stock America's largest purveyor of pool-side footwear, because the sprint to the centre ground is what presidential candidates do once the nomination is won, shoring up their weaker flanks in the safe assumption that the core support will stay loyal, even if it has to clamp its nostrils together with a giant clothes peg.

Obama's particular problem, of course, is that his appeal has been predicated on being the change from all that preceded him, not least the gruesome Clintonian tactic of offending nobody, known as triangulation. So the question being ceaselessly posed is whether it was all a scam... whether, far from being that gleaming emblem of change, he is another grubby careerist who believes only in sating his own craving for power. Is he, to put it in depressingly British terms, just a darker, smarter, infinitely cooler version of Mr Tony Blair?

The honest answer is that we simply don't know yet. Writing as a founder member of the British Obamaniacs Association, I find myself as constricted by doubts as anyone else whenever a visit to the "Real Clear Politics" or "Huffington Post" websites unearths news of yet another U-turn. Then I remember the sublimely brave and beautiful speech about race he gave in Philadelphia, and the worry subsides. Then I recall the line in it about how he could no more disown Jeremiah Wright – since disowned – than his casually racist white granny, and it bubbles up anew. Finally, I have no choice but to conclude that one's judgment about any candidate ultimately has almost nothing to do with what they say, and almost everything to do with instinct.

Nebulous to the point of nihilistic pointlessness though it may sound, we trust and distrust candidates not because of their policies and positions; we are sophisticated enough to know that they would promise to turn Pluto into a holiday resort for drug pushers if it meant winning a marginal in Moss Side. What decides it, to be nauseatingly folksy, is whether our gut tells us that their hearts are in the right place, and that they can be relied on to make the right calls on the biggest issues.

Returning ruefully to Mr Blair, it must be admitted that there are superficial similiarities between him and Obama. Both entered national politics affecting to occupy their party's far-left flank (Mr T's Cherie-dictated flirtation with Bennism is too often forgotten). Only when they were close to power did they declare themselves to be above traditional party lines and start sending scented billet doux to traditional supporters of their opponents. On this flimsy basis, it could be that Obama is as much a charlatan as was Blair.

Where they clearly differ, however, is in what their backgrounds reveal about their basic inclinations. As a young barrister, the possibly apocryphal story goes, Mr T piped up during a chambers meeting to ask after the possibility of installing an extra waiting room, because he didn't want his lucrative employment law clients mixing with yucky criminals. As a newly and glitteringly qualified lawyer, Obama sacrificed the big salary to work as a community organiser on the notorious streets of Chicago's south side. Could such a man really be the Blairite-Clintonian belief-free zone implied by his current courting of the gun-toting, God-bothering undecideds of Ohio, Michigan and the other key swing states?

Well, he could. Gentrification, stellar success and the adoration of half the planet are useful neutralisers of passion for social justice. Yet isn't it more likely that he has established himself as America's most liberal Senator because he is a true liberal, and that the centrist of today is a construct born of the reality that not since 1960 has a North-eastern liberal become President? And that, even then, Jack Kennedy did so only by attacking Richard Nixon from the right of the Cold War argument? Watching impotently from this side of the ocean, it feels so indescribably crucial that Obama beats John McCain – more so now than ever with Iran ratcheting up the ballistic brinkmanship – that the apparent mislaying of his cobblers must be seen as a blessing.

If Jesse Jackson is furiously caressing the Lorena Bobbit Memorial Pliers for Obama, good. This is electoral manna from heaven, in much the way that slanging matches with the TUC were for Mr Blair. If Obama has to remind his most idealistic supporters that they have nowhere else to go, better they are disappointed in him now than traumatised beyond repair when his election fails spontaneously to reorder this rotten old world as a paradise on earth. And if he is letting swing voters know that he is ruthless about winning, in contrast to such engaging but doomed purist predecessors as George McGovern, best of all. The sight of him running a harder, sharper campaign than Old Man McCain might persuade them that he will run the country more competently as well.

Hand on heart, all this flip-flopping isn't pretty to watch, and there is no denying that it dulls the pangs of the adolescent crush many of us have had on him for a while. But let him flip as much as he needs to in the next few months so long as he doesn't flop in November. Then the time will come to learn whether the gut instinct was right or wrong, and whether the world is being led by another JFK or, the Lord have mercy on our souls, a second Mr Tony Blair.