Obama must rekindle the flame

Obama once wrote that, in his youth, marijuana "could flatten out the landscape of my heart". I hope

When Michelle Obama comes to London on 15 October to raise funds for her husband's US presidential campaign, she will perform her usual riff. She will tell audiences she is "always a little amazed at the response that people get when they hear from Barack" because, in her eyes, he is the man who "won't put the butter up when he makes toast" or "put his socks in the dirty clothes" for the laundry. Obama, in other words, is a mere mortal. Some audiences need the reminder.

I started out as a Barack groupie myself. I was dazzled by his oratory at the Democratic National Convention in 2004: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America." I thought that finally a presidential figure had emerged who could, to quote Robert Kennedy, "send forth a tiny ripple of hope and . . . build a current which could sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance" - or, at the very least, provide some remedy for the destructiveness of Bush. Obama radiated hope with his bold take on policy and process.

He'd had the guts to be opposed to "a dumb war, a rash war" when it was deeply unpopular to do so. He talked about taking on special interests and lobbyists, about universal health care, stopping torture, shutting down Guantanamo and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

He called for citizen engagement, encouraging us to become stakeholders in his campaign for the Democratic Party nomination. The campaign delved into his past as a community organiser in poor 1980s Chicago, following the collapse of the steel industry. Organisers held "Camp Obamas" to teach supporters about power and how it could be harnessed to serve their common interests.

I attended one over a sunny summer weekend. A hundred and fifty of us crammed into the cafeteria of the New York high school where Fame was filmed. The atmosphere was electric. An opera singer, munching on a campaign-provided poppy-seed cream cheese bagel, said this was the first time he had taken an interest in politics. A homeless woman talked about her anger at the war being what attracted her to Obama. A somewhat precocious teenager said she was in it for Obama but also because she wanted to stand for office in the future. Labour organisers taught us how to run mini-campaigns and, significantly, how to analyse power.

Obama has wowed the press, has a war chest of $74.9m (having outraised all his rivals), and has attracted supporters in the thousands. The campaign has more than enough of the razzle-dazzle required to win.

Yet Obama is flatlining. He is in second position in the national polls, the latest of which shows Hillary Clinton with a 33-point lead. The political consultant Bob Shrum (currently Gordon Brown's election adviser) points out that at this stage national polls reflect only name recognition. The polls that do matter are from Iowa - the state that makes or breaks candidates - and those point to a race wide open for Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Voters are still oscillating between the candidates.

I feel the disenchantment myself. I could see the ripples building up, but instead of bouncing permanently into the Obama stratosphere, I have slid back down to earth as Obama looks increasingly managed. To be fair, some of it has to do with overexposure of a kind that would make anyone look artificial, but more has to do with Obama's drift in policy. He has begun to compete with Hillary Clinton in taking the most hawkish stance. He is starting to lose his "audacity of hope". Obama once wrote that, in his youth, marijuana "could flatten out the landscape of my heart". I hope that running for the presidency isn't having the same effect on him.

The way Obama is heading, he runs the risk of being neither the Establishment candidate (Clinton's position) nor the political outsider (Edwards's role), and ending up boxed into a no-man's-land. Yet perhaps it is not such a bad place to be. Obama is cautious and conciliatory, a centrist at heart. He often portrays himself as a reformist, not a revolutionary, and it seems to have worked so far.

Last month, 24,000 hipsters turned out in New York to see him speak. When I met Obama I liked him - he said the right stuff, he was attractive, he had a firm handshake and a nice smile - but I wasn't mesmerised by him. I agree with Michelle that he is no deity: "[He is] a great man, a wonderful man. But still a man."

That's OK. I'm not looking for a prophet. All I want is someone who can still speak truth to power. Can Obama do that?

Nur Laiq works for a think tank in New York

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power