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Obama the archetype

John McCain never stood a chance - Barack Obama is an archetype as much as a man

Granta.com, November 2008

It’s hard not to feel for John McCain. Unless the opinion polls are wrong to a degree that they have never been before (which is perhaps still possible in this most unusual of contests) he will, tomorrow, be a failed presidential candidate rather than a president; perhaps even one who has failed in spectacular style, leaving his party to fold into civil war. It’s a sorry ending for an old man who has had his sights set on the Oval Office for decades. But politics was never set to be fair. And while McCain has suffered many misfortunes over the past few months, some of them self-inflicted, his biggest misfortune was surely that, when he finally achieved the goal of receiving his party’s nomination for president, he found himself standing against an opponent who was less a man than an archetype.

Acres has already been written about the significance of Obama’s skin colour on this race, and if he wins there will be hectares more (steel yourself). Obama’s race makes him a receptacle of hope for millions: for black people in the US , most obviously, but also for liberal idealists around the world. It means that the oil-hungry rich white guys who have been running the show for the last eight years will be turfed out by someone not only less aggressive and more interested in the world’s good opinion, but by someone who is obviously, significantly and symbolically different.

Symbols matter, of course: that’s what archetypes are all about. John McCain, if he is a symbol of anything, is a symbol of an exhausted and unpopular governing party and of a turbulent decade, long ago now, when America was fighting a war even more contentious than the current conflict in Iraq . His very demeanour speaks of pain, awkwardness, age and suffering. Obama, by contrast, projects calm, sunlight, and – of course – ‘hope’. It is this hope that will probably sweep him to power and which may prove his greatest albatross when he gets there.

For Obama’s archetypal status is not just about his race. It is also about his youth, his oratorical power, his good looks, the generation he represents. Just look at him: watch him move, listen to him speak. It’s hard not to be impressed. It’s also hard to remember precisely what he’s saying, or to have much of an idea of what an Obama administration might be able to do to meet the extraordinary hopes it has systematically encouraged. But that, right now, is not the point. Obama has become a receptacle for the scattered, deep and long-clung-to desires of millions of people. It is not yet time for payback. It is still time for hope.

Not all of that hope is based on reality. I have heard, from varied sources, how President Obama will bring peace to the middle east; end the war in Iraq ; green America ’s energy supplies; tackle climate change; prevent genocide; heal the United States ’ 200-year old racial divide. And that’s just the big stuff. If and when he takes his oath of office, all of this will be hanging over him. If and when he makes his inauguration speech, America will not have seen such a symbolic political moment for probably half a century.

In the light of all this, and with the glory of hindsight, John McCain never stood a chance. The question is: with all of this placed squarely upon his slim shoulders, does Barack Obama?