E President o Bama?

Though it is clearly to early in the game to predict the end of the story, I have been keenly following the political fortunes of Barack Obama over…

Though it is clearly to early in the game to predict the end of the story, I have been keenly following the political fortunes of Barack Obama over the past year or more.

This is not necessarily out of any political sympathy for him (I am not a fan of his complicity in the big ethanol boondoggle), but because it seems to me he may prove to be a watershed figure in the technology of American politics and the politics of American technology.

In many ways, he reminds me of John F. Kennedy, and may turn out to be a man of similar historical importance.

I am only just old enough to remember the 1960 Kennedy campaign, and how his campaign officers exploited their superior understanding of the relatively new technology of television to outmaneuver Richard Nixon — an “old pro” in the political game as it was then played, and, at the beginning, a clear favourite over Kennedy.

Kennedy had a couple of strikes against him as he started his campaign.

For one thing, at 43, he was younger than any presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt; for another, he was Catholic.

He also faced a tough fight with the named successor of the very popular outgoing President Eisenhower.

In the end (with the help of a little scandalous polling station chicanery on the part of the notoriously corrupt mayor of Chicago), he squeaked out the narrowest of possible wins in the popular vote (49.7 per cent, to Nixon’s 49.5 per cent). and secured enough narrow wins to get the Electoral College votes than he needed to win the race.

The difference, in the last analysis, was television.

Kennedy — young, suave and handsome, with a looker for a wife — just  came across better on TV than grouchy-looking old Nixon did.

In the end, of course, he turned out to be a tragically short-term president, and in many ways not a very good or effective one; but there is no question that his victory marked a revolution in the way politics got done in America.

After him, it got done on television.

Obama’s political position is interesting in the way it both echoes and differs from that of Kennedy’s in 1960.

He, at 46, is also relatively young, but not much younger than Bill Clinton was (47), when he took office in 1993.

He is also, famously, a black man, or at least a man with a partially black ethnicity — a cultural barrier potentially more difficult to overcome than Catholicism was in the ‘60’s.

On the other hand, he does not face quite the same uphill struggle against a seasoned candidate endorsed by a popular outgoing president.

John McCain is a man with a lot of ethical credibility, but he does not have the stature or the party backing that Nixon enjoyed in 1960.

And Obama, like Kennedy, has the technological edge on his competitor.

He is, in effect, the first e-candidate for e-president, and it is quite possible that his campaign organizers’ superior understanding of internet-driven social networking will be the critical edge he needs to win.

Kennedy, in the era of the jet-set movie personality, looked and acted the part of a jet-set movie personality.

Obama, in the era of the linked-in internet cool guy, looks and acts the part of the linked-in internet cool guy.

Aside from the aforementioned big ethanol interests, Obama’s main strength, in terms of both money and in-kind assistance, is the Silicon Valley technology and venture capitalist sector.

He has already shown the power of an  internet-based social networking approach in political fund raising, having used it to thoroughly out-hustle the big-money sweetheart, Hillary Clinton, in the money-raising game.

His organizers have also been incredibly effective at recruiting the kind of high-value, in-kind time and techno-know-how donations that have allowed Obama to go beyond the usual means of attaining and keeping the public’s interest (the attack ad, the movie-star  photo op) with direct, personal, targeted communication to individuals, on the personal media of their computers or cellphones.

It is has worked wonderfully well for him so far, and there is no reason he would jump off this technological-political bandwagon now.

Even if he does not finally succeed in the end in becoming president, his successes so far are likely to change the way Americans do politics in the future.

They are going to do it on the internet.

The Obama-McCain showdown in the coming months may be unpredictable in political terms, but it is pretty much a done deal, in terms of the technology of politics.

For the first time ever, we are going to see both parties actively using the new social networking media as a way whip up the supporters, and to get the vote out.

Both parties will also be using the social networking media to drum up the money they need, with less dependence on big-money interest groups like the oil or the pharmaceutical sectors.

Does all this mean a better, more democratic campaign, and therefore a better, more democratic presidency?

Well, that remains to be seen.

Certainly, after the dark disgrace of the current, mercifully ending presidency, the Americans might be in the mood for a little democracy.

But good campaigning technologies and strategies do not inevitably guarantee good results or good politics.

And, as Barack Obama’s discrediting endorsement of  the US’s obscenely wasteful and destructive ethanol technology makes clear, the e-road to the presidency still seems to run through some pretty disreputable neighbourhoods.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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