When historians look back at the presidency of Barack Obama, they will not begin with his campaign announcement in May 2007. They will not start with his election to the Senate in 2004 or with his celebrated speech to the Democratic National Conventionthat year. Instead, these historians will identify the beginning of the Obama phenomenon in the antiwar speech he delivered in Chicago, on Oct. 2, 2002.
To understand Obama’s political career, these historians will say, you must first understand the visceral opposition of the Democratic base to the decisions made by President George W. Bush. Without Bush, there would have been no Obama. And once Bush had faded from the scene, once he’d been replaced by a group of reform-minded GOP governors and congressmen, and once the Democratic president had to account for the failures of his own term, Obama’s appeal faded, too. He was reduced to his core. He was simply an antiwar academic liberal, similar to the intellectuals who write our newspapers and magazines and produce our news and comedy shows. He was an isolated man of the left.
Bush was the biggest endorphin boost the Democratic Party had received in a long while. The Florida showdown in 2000 polarized the country. The left was incensed when Bush, whom they expected to behave as a caretaker president, governed along the lines he’d laid out during the campaign. His Christian faith and social conservative views repulsed liberals. Above all, his determination that Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power galvanized the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party, including a young state senator in Illinois. All of the energy on the Democratic side was coming from the youthful and networked and stridently leftwing grassroots. What unified them was their abhorrence of Bush and of “Bush’s war.” The Iraq war was less than one year old when a senior editor of the New Republic explained, “Why I Hate George W. Bush.”
The first political figure to embody the ascendant Democrats was Howard Dean. The little known governor of Vermont rode his opposition to the Iraq war, and to the Democrats who had voted for it, to prominence in the polls and fundraising in 2003. Dean really had little to offer his supporters besides his angry denunciations of Bush. But that did not seem to matter. The Dean campaign became the locus for young Democrats who felt out of place in the party of Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. It used social media to bring its allies together. These tech-savvy, Millennial-generation voters understood the Dean campaign less as a bid for the White House than as a redemptive social movement. Dean’s rallies assumed the form of tent revivals. The Iraq war had sparked a second children’s crusade.