Opinion: The new Obama | Opinion | DW | 17.01.2016
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Opinion: The new Obama

People respond to Bernie Sanders because they believe him when he says he's fighting for policies, not for himself. He could become a real threat for Hillary Clinton, says DW's Washington correspondent Ines Pohl.

The Hillary camp is nervous. The unthinkable has suddenly become a possibility. Bernie Sanders – the old man, the self-described democratic socialist – may win the first two Democratic primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, which traditionally have always been so symbolically important.

That could have traumatic consequences for the Clinton team - just like eight years ago, when Barack Obama was her rival. Once again, an outsider has suddenly come on the scene, and Hillary's empire is showing signs of tottering.

Honesty that comes across well

Bernie Sanders does not have the great wealth needed to finance what is – once again – the most expensive election campaign of all time. He is, however, able to the raise millions of dollars of funding that he needs via small donations from hundreds of thousands of Americans.

People like this 74-year-old candidate. Because he says what he thinks. Because he's an honest man who's not permanently mired in contradictions. And because people believe that he is fighting for a cause and not primarily for himself. Fundamentally, Americans mistrust the White House. This has its roots in the history of the founding of the United States, which is, after all, a story of liberation from arbitrary government.

Regardless of their political persuasion, people are tired of the spectacle in recent years of mutual blockade between House and Senate.

Pohl Ines Kommentarbild App

Ines Pohl, DW Washington correspondent

Representing countertrends

Voters have had enough of the complacent political establishment. This is also one reason for the success of the Republican Donald Trump, who presents himself as an "enfant terrible" and as such breaks all the rules, not just those of good manners and decency. People love it, because it gives them the feeling that this is someone who is standing up to and fighting against the might of government.

Sanders, by contrast, stands politically for precisely this strong government. He wants higher taxes and more influence in the fields of education and health. But perhaps this level is still too abstract for this very emotional early phase of election year.

The 74-year-old is most successful among "millennials" - 18- to 24-year-olds. In this demographic, he is way ahead of Hillary, with a 65-percent approval rating. Hillary has only 27 percent. Bernie Sanders even ticks the boxes for some voters who do not generally support the Democrats.

As befits their age, young Americans are drawn to countertrends. And this old white man is a countertrend in a party where the norm is to be female or black or young. This too might play a part.

Sanders and Trump: Both are taboo-breakers, in very different ways. Trump – racist and sexist. Sanders – credible and combative.

Dangerous outsider

Unlike Hillary Clinton, who has been in the business for decades, these two men have no political scandals in their baggage that the opposition could use to its advantage. Astonishingly, many Americans see Donald Trump's misdemeanors as a purely private matter.

Eight years ago there was an outsider in the running. One who, purely according to the laws of probability, should never have been allowed to win.

Can Sanders really pull off an Obama?

In the upcoming primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, he may well do. And then things will really kick off.

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