Obama, Koizumi, and the DPJ

I have learned that Ozawa Ichiro reportedly dispatched a DPJ member to observe Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Texas in advance of Tuesday’s voting.

He could have saved some money and looked closer to home at the politics of former prime minister Koizumi Junichiro.

There are a few obvious superficial similarities — and a few equally obvious differences. In the former category, the two share certain rhetorical gifts, a “hipness” that enables them to appeal to younger voters (not surprisingly, Rolling Stone has endorsed Mr. Obama), and a sense of being propelled to leadership thanks to the “fierce urgency of now” despite relatively lackluster or short political careers. Perhaps the biggest difference between them is the conditions they face: although Mr. Koizumi has been rightly criticized for the simplicity of his slogans, kaikaku meant something. The Koizumi revolution, while incomplete, was still a revolution, with the LDP’s facing its full consequences today. By contrast, while Mr. Obama speaks often of “change,” it is still not clear what that will mean in practical terms — and as David Brooks argues in the New York Times, his message of standing for a new kind of politics might not even survive the fight for the Democratic nomination.

But there is something more to the superficial similarities, which may not be so superficial after all. In the massive crowds that greeted Mr. Koizumi at his campaign appearances and the record-breaking crowds who have greeted Mr. Obama in even the most unlikely of places, one sees how both men are capable of tapping into the most visceral hopes of Japanese and American voters. Despite widespread cynicism about the political process in all mature democracies, both politicians make clear that voters are still willing to believe that things can be better, that it is still possible for a more hopeful, responsive politics that addresses the fears and ambitions of the people — and the politician that can tap into that reservoir of hope is a powerful politician indeed. (And, of course, there is always the danger that such politicians will abuse their power, with disastrous consequences that do not bear mentioning because I wish to respect Godwin’s law.) There is, of course, a strong likelihood that voters will end up disappointed; Japanese voters were certainly frustrated by Mr. Koizumi’s failings. But no matter how many times they are disappointed, they continue to hope for leaders who promise to deliver change that results in a kinder, gentler politics. Hence Mr. Koizumi’s resounding victory in 2005, despite the disappointments of the previous four years. Hence the strong approval ratings that greeted both Mr. Abe and Mr. Fukuda to office.

This, then, is the challenge for the DPJ. How can the party tap into the lingering hopes of Japanese voters? There appears to be no messenger on the horizon capable of elevating the DPJ’s somewhat muddled message into a transcendent message of hope. The DPJ does not necessarily need a Koizumi of its own — indeed, Mr. Koizumi’s aggressive, crisis-driven (dare I say Schmittian) politics were probably better suited for waging intra-LDP battles than for addressing the country’s problems — but it does need a leader who can inspire the hopes of Japanese citizens and earn their trust, in the process enabling the DPJ to ask for sacrifices in interests of building new institutions and undertaking necessary and wrenching reforms.

As for Mr. Obama, I hope that he eventually turns from scapegoating trade agreements (and by extension, foreigners) and starts emphasizing structural reforms needed in the US to enable Americans to compete in a post-industrial, globalized economy.

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