June 5, 2008

President Obama?

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on June 5, 2008.

The marathon race for the Democratic Party’s nominee for US president is over. Just about. Barack Obama claimed the party’s nomination on Tuesday night, having won the number of delegates required to secure a majority of votes at August’s Democratic National Convention.

The media was quick to declare Obama’s victory on Tuesday. By midday, the AP news service reported two Clinton campaign officials saying that the race was effectively over. More tellingly, the US media also reported Clinton saying she was ‘open’ to becoming Obama’s vice-presidential nominee. If true, this would have been tantamount to an admission of defeat, as well as a clear indicator of her revised objective.

Obama is a victor by any measure in the US’ byzantine party nomination system. He won primaries or caucuses in 29 states, while Clinton managed victory in only 21. Of Clinton’s victories, two states (Texas and Nevada) ended up providing Obama with more delegates due to how they were allocated, while another two (Michigan and Florida) were penalised half their delegate votes as punishment for holding primaries early, against party regulations. By the end of the primaries, Obama led marginally in the popular vote, by about 0.1-0.2 per cent. He had also won more elected pledged delegates, and had secured the open support of more superdelegates.

But Clinton’s showing against a candidate anointed by many analysts as the party’s presumptive nominee in late February has been impressive. After a string of electoral victories had given Obama what eventually became an unassailable lead, Clinton managed wins in Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Puerto Rico and South Dakota, sometimes by margins as high as 41 per cent. Yet these sizeable victories were overturned by Obama’s wins in Mississippi, North Carolina and Oregon, as well as the Democratic Party’s decision last weekend to seat only half the delegates from Florida and Michigan.

What will be the impact of this long and closely-fought nomination battle? The Democratic Party could possibly be compelled to revise primary rules for the next election season in four years, perhaps replicating the Republicans’ winner-takes-all system so as to ensure an earlier winner.

More immediately, however, Clinton will come under even greater pressure to withdraw from the race for the sake of party unity. She refused to do so on Tuesday, despite Obama’s declaration of victory and the media commentary in his favour. She will certainly have to withdraw by the convention in late August when the nominee is formally elected. But by staying in the race for another three months until the convention, she will be seen as helping the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee John McCain.

Clinton’s defeat is likely to place the Indian-American community in a quandary. The community’s support for Clinton has been substantial. Many Indian-Americans, while overwhelmingly Democratic, were offended by the Obama campaign’s infamous memo ridiculing Clinton as a senator from Punjab. The possible addition to the Republican ticket of Bobby Jindal, who joined McCain at a rally in Louisiana on Tuesday, may also cause some Indian-Americans to vote against Obama in November.

But Clinton’s defeat will also provide clarity for many among the larger voting populace and international followers of American politics. Obama and Clinton saw their policies overlapping on most key issues, and their campaign rhetoric changed rapidly based on immediate electoral contests. Most notably, the criticism of outsourcing by both Obama and Clinton surged considerably as they campaigned in the industrialised Midwestern states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia: the so-called ‘Rust Belt’. In fact, Obama’s condemnation of outsourcing — which had been so pronounced during his Iowa speech in January, as well as at his 2004 convention speech when he first announced his arrival on the national political stage — was comparatively muted in St. Paul.

With the nomination secured, Obama is likely to position himself in opposition to McCain and the Republican Party, providing clearer comparisons between the platforms of the two major parties’ presumptive nominees. In fact, a significant portion of Obama’s victory speech was dedicated to denigrating McCain and his policies. But while his eyes may now be focused on the election in November, Obama is also likely to face mounting pressure from Clinton’s many supporters to take her on as his running mate.