Opinion

Obama's biggest obstacle

If he beats Clinton, he must heed a lesson from French politics to win it all.

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Super Tuesday made one thing clear: Barack Obama, whose biography and oratory promise sweeping change, is locked in a street fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment candidate of the left. Yet with each passing contest, his prospects in November appear to grow brighter.

It's déjà vu for those of us who follow French politics.

We watched in 2006 as Ségolène Royal rode to primary victory on the backs of new voters inspired by her promise to renew French politics by listening to the people. We then saw her lose the election last May to Nicolas Sarkozy, a straight-talking candidate of the right who had campaigned on a platform of change, even though the incumbent was an unpopular two-term president of the right. What lessons does Ms. Royal's defeat offer Senator Obama?

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Should he win the nomination, he will have defeated Senator Clinton, who has the solid support of the Democratic Party machine. John Edwards, whose fiery rhetoric effectively highlighted growing inequality and attracted many working-class voters, has already bowed out. Obama needs the supporters of both rivals in order to win the general election.

Royal faced the same problem. In the primary process, she dispatched two heavyweight candidates of her own party. Former finance minister and current International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the steady set of hands favored by the Parisian party elite: a French Hillary Clinton.

Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius campaigned for greater state intervention and hostility to global markets: a French John Edwards, minus the golden-boy hair. Royal beat both men, each of whom had far more governing experience than she did, by combining the prospect of national electability with a sense of new political possibility that appealed both to the core Socialist voters backing Strauss-Kahn, and to the disaffected voters who supported Fabius.

What went wrong in the general election? The divorce between Royal and the Socialist Party apparatus – which had been her strength as a candidate of change – suddenly became a liability when she was running on that party's platform. Much like Obama, her primary campaign had intimated that she would build a coalition for change by breaking with old orthodoxies and making French politics more open to public participation.

When she went to the general election, though, the new political promise of the primary disappeared, replaced by a recycled Socialist Party program that promised to solve public problems simply by spending more money. It was the old politics repackaged and it gave her no chance to beat Mr. Sarkozy.

The risk for Obama, should he win the nomination, is clear. He must hold together his base, while convincing the Democratic Party to walk his walk of grass-roots social change. Like Royal, Obama must respond to the great challenge of contemporary American politics by assembling a winning coalition behind a new vision for the left.

The challenge is to repair the discredited notion of public power for the common good. Republicans equate public power with high taxes and bridges to nowhere; Democrats equate public power with Guantánamo and legislators in the arms of lobbyists.

Obama's soaring talk of political renewal is so compelling precisely because he responds to this challenge. He does so, not with a 12-point plan from the incrementalist Democratic Leadership Council or a radical proposal to shoot all the lobbyists, but as an organizer trying build a new coalition among traditional progressive voters and those in the alienated center, including especially young voters, about a shared vision of public power in the common interest. Obama's coalition includes both the well-off young and the disaffected of all ages – a potentially powerful combination.

The primary season is turning into a slugfest for delegates, and that is where the Obama campaign will correctly put its attention. Yet if he wants to win in November as well as at the convention, Obama has to persuade not just the voters, but the party machine, of the rightness of his vision. The county and state-level Democratic Party leaders who have been working for Clinton will be essential players in any Obama victory.

The conventional challenge for Democrats in the general election is not to run too far to the left in the primary, but Obama is unconventional. He has already attracted voters of the center, as did Royal. His main risk is failing to convince the local leaders of the Democratic Party, not just Edward Kennedy. These local party leaders will not oppose him if he is the nominee, but many of them do not share his core beliefs about the character of grass-roots social change.

If he fails to use the primaries to persuade these potential allies, he may share Royal's fate in losing an election that could have been his to win.

• Pepper D. Culpepper is a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book, edited with Peter Hall and Bruno Palier, is "Changing France: The Politics that Markets Make."

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