Tuesday, January 22, 2008
BARACK the VOTE
What up peeps, since I am on my political tip in the wake of the primaries I thought I would post an article on Obama that was forwarded to me from Uncle Skip and my Pops. The article is great and gives a laundry list of reasons on why to support Barack Obama in his run for Presidency. Im down with him for more reasons than him being a black man....but that doesnt hurt either. I got a chance to interview him in Marion, IL while he was on the campaign trail during his for Illinois Senator. I was thrilled to meet him and taken back by his ability to captivate a room. I remember my Pops telling my when he delivered the Democratic keynote address a few years ago, that I was looking at the first black president. Although it didnt take a genius to know that...my Pops has a way of always being right, expect on his sports picks, but he usually knows whats up.
The article is ridiculously long...but take some time to read it, read it in parts, to be continue it...whatever it takes. It some good insight on the soon to be first black president!
Is Iraq Vietnam? Who really won in 2000? Which side are you on in the culture
wars? These questions have divided the Baby Boomers and distorted our politics.
One candidate could transcend them.
by Andrew Sullivan
Goodbye to All That
The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack
Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to
his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within
the conventions of our politics. It has little to do with Obama’s
considerable skills as a conciliator, legislator, or even thinker. It has even
less to do with his ideological pedigree or legal background or rhetorical
skills. Yes, as the many profiles prove, he has considerable intelligence and
not a little guile. But so do others, not least his formidably polished and
practiced opponent Senator Hillary Clinton.
Obama, moreover, is no saint. He has flaws and tics: Often tired, sometimes
crabby, intermittently solipsistic, he’s a surprisingly uneven campaigner.
A soaring rhetorical flourish one day is undercut by a lackluster debate
performance the next. He is certainly not without self-regard. He has more
experience in public life than his opponents want to acknowledge, but he has
not spent much time in Washington and has never run a business. His lean
physique, close-cropped hair, and stick-out ears can give the impression of a
slightly pushy undergraduate. You can see why many of his friends and admirers
have urged him to wait his turn. He could be president in five or nine years’
time—why the rush?
But he knows, and privately acknowledges, that the fundamental point of his
candidacy is that it is happening now. In politics, timing matters. And the
most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he
is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a
confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in
the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate
that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.
Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike
any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the
debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that
has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven
years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the
present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large
steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares
directly—and uncomfortably—at you.
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in
Iraq, which now has a mo°©mentum that will propel the occupation into the
next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and
that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has
crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about
war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war,
Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.
The traces of our long journey to this juncture can be found all around us. Its
most obvious manifestation is political rhetoric. The high temperature—Bill
O’Reilly’s nightly screeds against anti-Americans on one channel, Keith
Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” on the other; MoveOn.org’s
“General Betray Us” on the one side, Ann Coulter’s Treason on the other;
Michael Moore’s accusation of treason at the core of the Iraq War, Sean
Hannity’s assertion of treason in the opposition to it—is particularly
striking when you examine the generally minor policy choices on the table.
Something deeper and more powerful than the actual decisions we face is driving
the tone of the debate.
Take the biggest foreign-policy question—the war in Iraq. The rhetoric ranges
from John McCain’s “No Surrender” banner to the “End the War Now”
absolutism of much of the Democratic base. Yet the substantive issue is almost
comically removed from this hyperventilation. Every potential president,
Republican or Democrat, would likely inherit more than 100,000 occupying troops
in January 2009; every one would be attempting to redeploy them as prudently as
possible and to build stronger alliances both in the region and in the world.
Every major candidate, moreover, will pledge to use targeted military force
against al-Qaeda if necessary; every one is committed to ensuring that Iran
will not have a nuclear bomb; every one is committed to an open-ended
deployment in Afghanistan and an unbending alliance with Israel. We are
fighting over something, to be sure. But it is more a fight over how we define
ourselves and over long-term goals than over what is practically to be done on
On domestic policy, the primary issue is health care. Again, the ferocious
rhetoric belies the mundane reality. Between the boogeyman of “Big
Government” and the alleged threat of the drug companies, the practical
differences are more matters of nuance than ideology. Yes, there are policy
disagreements, but in the wake of the Bush administration, they are
underwhelming. Most Republicans support continuing the Medicare drug benefit
for seniors, the largest expansion of the entitlement state since Lyndon
Johnson, while Democrats are merely favoring more cost controls on drug and
insurance companies. Between Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan—individual
mandates, private-sector leadership—and Senator Clinton’s triangulated
update of her 1994 debacle, the difference is more technical than fundamental.
The country has moved ever so slightly leftward. But this again is less a
function of ideological transformation than of the current system’s failure
to provide affordable health care for the insured or any care at all for
growing numbers of the working poor.
Even on issues that are seen as integral to the polarization, the practical
stakes in this election are minor. A large consensus in America favors legal
abortions during the first trimester and varying restrictions thereafter. Even
in solidly red states, such as South Dakota, the support for total
criminalization is weak. If Roe were to fall, the primary impact would be the
end of a system more liberal than any in Europe in favor of one more in sync
with the varied views that exist across this country. On marriage, the battles
in the states are subsiding, as a bevy of blue states adopt either civil
marriage or civil unions for gay couples, and the rest stand pat. Most states
that want no recognition for same-sex couples have already made that decision,
usually through state constitutional amendments that allow change only with
extreme difficulty. And the one state where marriage equality exists,
Massachusetts, has decided to maintain the reform indefinitely.
Given this quiet, evolving consensus on policy, how do we account for the
bitter, brutal tone of American politics? The answer lies mainly with the
biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers. The
divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who
didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but
never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it
lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.
The professionalization of the battle, and the emergence of an array of
well-funded interest groups dedicated to continuing it, can be traced most
proximately to the bitter confirmation fights over Robert Bork and Clarence
Thomas, in 1987 and 1991 respectively. The presidency of Bill Clinton, who was
elected with only 43 percent of the vote in 1992, crystallized the new reality.
As soon as the Baby Boomers hit the commanding heights, the Vietnam power
struggle rebooted. The facts mattered little in the face of such a divide.
While Clinton was substantively a moderate conservative in policy, his
countercultural origins led to the drama, ultimately, of religious warfare and
even impeachment. Clinton clearly tried to bridge the Boomer split. But he was
trapped on one side of it—and his personal foibles only reignited his
generation’s agonies over sex and love and marriage. Even the failed
impeachment didn’t bring the two sides to their senses, and the election of
2000 only made matters worse: Gore and Bush were almost designed to reflect the
Boomers’ and the country’s divide, which deepened further.
The trauma of 9/11 has tended to obscure the memory of that unprecedentedly
bitter election, and its nail- biting aftermath, which verged on a
constitutional crisis. But its legacy is very much still with us, made far
worse by President Bush’s approach to dealing with it. Despite losing the
popular vote, Bush governed as if he had won Reagan’s 49 states. Instead of
cementing a coalition of the center-right, Bush and Rove set out to ensure that
the new evangelical base of the Republicans would turn out more reliably in
2004. Instead of seeing the post-’60s divide as a wound to be healed, they
poured acid on it.
With 9/11, Bush had a reset moment—a chance to reunite the country in a way
that would marginalize the extreme haters on both sides and forge a national
consensus. He chose not to do so. It wasn’t entirely his fault. On the left,
the truest believers were unprepared to give the president the benefit of any
doubt in the wake of the 2000 election, and they even judged the 9/11 attacks
to be a legitimate response to decades of U.S. foreign policy. Some could not
support the war in Afghanistan, let alone the adventure in Iraq. As the Iraq
War faltered, the polarization intensified. In 2004, the Vietnam argument
returned with a new energy, with the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry’s
Vietnam War record and CBS’s misbegotten report on Bush’s record in the
Texas Air National Guard. These were the stories that touched the collective
nerve of the political classes—because they parsed once again along the fault
lines of the Boomer divide that had come to define all of us.
The result was an even deeper schism. Kerry was arguably the worst candidate on
earth to put to rest the post-1960s culture war—and his decision to embrace
his Vietnam identity at the convention made things worse. Bush, for his part,
was unable to do nuance. And so the campaign became a matter of
symbolism—pitting those who took the terror threat “seriously” against
those who didn’t. Supporters of the Iraq War became more invested in
asserting the morality of their cause than in examining the effectiveness of
their tactics. Opponents of the war found themselves dispirited. Some were left
to hope privately for American failure; others lashed out, as distrust turned
to paranoia. It was and is a toxic cycle, in which the interests of the United
States are supplanted by domestic agendas born of pride and ruthlessness on the
one hand and bitterness and alienation on the other.
This is the critical context for the election of 2008. It is an election that
holds the potential not merely to intensify this cycle of division but to
bequeath it to a new generation, one marked by a new war that need not
be—that should not be—seen as another Vietnam. A Giuliani-Clinton matchup,
favored by the media elite, is a classic intragenerational struggle—with two
deeply divisive and ruthless personalities ready to go to the brink. Giuliani
represents that Nixonian disgust with anyone asking questions about, let alone
actively protesting, a war. Clinton will always be, in the minds of so many,
the young woman who gave the commencement address at Wellesley, who sat in on
the Nixon implosion and who once disdained baking cookies. For some, her
husband will always be the draft dodger who smoked pot and wouldn’t admit it.
And however hard she tries, there is nothing Hillary Clinton can do about it.
She and Giuliani are conscripts in their generation’s war. To their
respective sides, they are war heroes.
In normal times, such division is not fatal, and can even be healthy. It’s
great copy for journalists. But we are not talking about routine rancor. And we
are not talking about normal times. We are talking about a world in which
Islamist terror, combined with increasingly available destructive technology,
has already murdered thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of Muslims,
and could pose an existential danger to the West. The terrible failures of the
Iraq occupation, the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the progress of Iran
toward nuclear capability, and the collapse of America’s prestige and moral
reputation, especially among those millions of Muslims too young to have known
any American president but Bush, heighten the stakes dramatically.
Perhaps the underlying risk is best illustrated by our asking what the popular
response would be to another 9/11–style attack. It is hard to imagine a
reprise of the sudden unity and solidarity in the days after 9/11, or an
outpouring of support from allies and neighbors. It is far easier to imagine an
even more bitter fight over who was responsible (apart from the perpetrators)
and a profound suspicion of a government forced to impose more restrictions on
travel, communications, and civil liberties. The current president would be
unable to command the trust, let alone the support, of half the country in such
a time. He could even be blamed for provoking any attack that came.
Of the viable national candidates, only Obama and possibly McCain have the
potential to bridge this widening partisan gulf. Polling reveals Obama to be
the favored Democrat among Republicans. McCain’s bipartisan appeal has
receded in recent years, especially with his enthusiastic embrace of the latest
phase of the Iraq War. And his personal history can only reinforce the Vietnam
divide. But Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s
a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support
among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer
Edwards? Perhaps because the Republicans and independents who are open to an
Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist
terrorism. It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They
are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of
what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of
the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation?
Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the
symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems,
Obama may be your man.
What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most
effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a
re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The
war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard
power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the
Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq,
and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The
next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard
power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an
ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul.
There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this.
Which is where his face comes in.
Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is
watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new
face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted
up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an
African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim
school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most
effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist
ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is
in ways no words can.
The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies
is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly
opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked
with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring
states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence.
Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never
had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it
indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful
consequences of long-term occupation.
This latter point is the most salient. The act of picking the next president
will be in some ways a statement of America’s view of Iraq. Clinton is
running as a centrist Democrat—voting for war, accepting the need for an
occupation at least through her first term, while attempting to do triage as
practically as possible. Obama is running as the clearer antiwar candidate. At
the same time, Obama’s candidacy cannot fairly be cast as a McGovernite
revival in tone or substance. He is not opposed to war as such. He is not
opposed to the use of unilateral force, either—as demonstrated by his
willingness to target al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the objections of the Pakistani
government. He does not oppose the idea of democratization in the Muslim world
as a general principle or the concept of nation building as such. He is not an
isolationist, as his support for the campaign in Afghanistan proves. It is
worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October
2, 2002, five months before the war:
I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no
shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war.
What I am opposed to is a rash war … I know that even a successful war
against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at
undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of
Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will
only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than
best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of
al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.
The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the
potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is
hemmed in by her past and her generation. If she pulls out too quickly, she
will fall prey to the usual browbeating from the right—the same theme that
has played relentlessly since 1968. If she stays in too long, the antiwar base
of her own party, already suspicious of her, will pounce. The Boomer legacy
imprisons her—and so it may continue to imprison us. The debate about the war
in the next four years needs to be about the practical and difficult choices
ahead of us—not about the symbolism or whether it’s a second Vietnam.
A generational divide also separates Clinton and Obama with respect to domestic
politics. Clinton grew up saturated in the conflict that still defines American
politics. As a liberal, she has spent years in a defensive crouch against
triumphant post-Reagan conservatism. The mau-mauing that greeted her
health-care plan and the endless nightmares of her husband’s scandals drove
her deeper into her political bunker. Her liberalism is warped by what you
might call a Political Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Reagan spooked people on
the left, especially those, like Clinton, who were interested primarily in
winning power. She has internalized what most Democrats of her generation have
internalized: They suspect that the majority is not with them, and so some
quotient of discretion, fear, or plain deception is required if they are to
advance their objectives. And so the less-adept ones seem deceptive, and the
more-practiced ones, like Clinton, exhibit the plastic-ness and inauthenticity
that still plague her candidacy. She’s hiding her true feelings. We know it,
she knows we know it, and there is no way out of it.
Obama, simply by virtue of when he was born, is free of this defensiveness.
Strictly speaking, he is at the tail end of the Boomer generation. But he is
not of it.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Listen to an excerpt from Obama’s interview with Andrew Sullivan
“Partly because my mother, you know, was smack-dab in the middle of the Baby
Boom generation,” he told me. “She was only 18 when she had me. So when I
think of Baby Boomers, I think of my mother’s generation. And you know, I was
too young for the formative period of the ’60s—civil rights, sexual
revolution, Vietnam War. Those all sort of passed me by.”
Obama’s mother was, in fact, born only five years earlier than Hillary
Clinton. He did not politically come of age during the Vietnam era, and he is
simply less afraid of the right wing than Clinton is, because he has emerged on
the national stage during a period of conservative decadence and decline. And
so, for example, he felt much freer than Clinton to say he was prepared to meet
and hold talks with hostile world leaders in his first year in office. He has
proposed sweeping middle-class tax cuts and opposed drastic reforms of Social
Security, without being tarred as a fiscally reckless liberal. (Of course, such
accusations are hard to make after the fiscal performance of today’s
“conservatives.”) Even his more conservative positions—like his openness
to bombing Pakistan, or his support for merit pay for public-school
teachers—do not appear to emerge from a desire or need to credentialize
himself with the right. He is among the first Democrats in a generation not to
be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe, which also gives them more
freedom to move pragmatically to the right, if necessary. He does not smell, as
Clinton does, of political fear.
There are few areas where this Democratic fear is more intense than religion.
The crude exploitation of sectarian loyalty and religious zeal by Bush and Rove
succeeded in deepening the culture war, to Republican advantage. Again, this
played into the divide of the Boomer years—between God-fearing Americans and
the peacenik atheist hippies of lore. The Democrats have responded by
pretending to a public religiosity that still seems strained. Listening to
Hillary Clinton detail her prayer life in public, as she did last spring to a
packed house at George Washington University, was at once poignant and
repellent. Poignant because her faith may well be genuine; repellent because
its Methodist genuineness demands that she not profess it so tackily. But she
did. The polls told her to.
Obama, in contrast, opened his soul up in public long before any focus group
demanded it. His first book, Dreams From My Father, is a candid, haunting, and
supple piece of writing. It was not concocted to solve a political problem (his
second, hackneyed book, The Audacity of Hope, filled that niche). It was a
genuine display of internal doubt and conflict and sadness. And it reveals
Obama as someone whose “complex fate,” to use Ralph Ellison’s term, is to
be both believer and doubter, in a world where such complexity is as
beleaguered as it is necessary.
This struggle to embrace modernity without abandoning faith falls on one of the
fault lines in the modern world. It is arguably the critical fault line, the
tectonic rift that is advancing the bloody borders of Islam and the
increasingly sectarian boundaries of American politics. As humankind abandons
the secular totalitarianisms of the last century and grapples with breakneck
technological and scientific discoveries, the appeal of absolutist faith is
powerful in both developing and developed countries. It is the latest in a long
line of rebukes to liberal modernity—but this rebuke has the deepest roots,
the widest appeal, and the attraction that all total solutions to the human
predicament proffer. From the doctrinal absolutism of Pope Benedict’s Vatican
to the revival of fundamentalist Protestantism in the U.S. and Asia to the
attraction for many Muslims of the most extreme and antimodern forms of Islam,
the same phenomenon has spread to every culture and place.
You cannot confront the complex challenges of domestic or foreign policy today
unless you understand this gulf and its seriousness. You cannot lead the United
States without having a foot in both the religious and secular camps. This,
surely, is where Bush has failed most profoundly. By aligning himself with the
most extreme and basic of religious orientations, he has lost many moderate
believers and alienated the secular and agnostic in the West. If you cannot
bring the agnostics along in a campaign against religious terrorism, you have a
Here again, Obama, by virtue of generation and accident, bridges this deepening
divide. He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity
as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real
and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious
experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. “I didn’t have an
epiphany,” he explained to me. “What I really did was to take a set of
values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I
have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists—you know,
belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility—those kinds of
values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and
a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a
belief in redemption and mercy and justice … I guess the point is, it
continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this
issue of faith.”
The best speech Obama has ever given was not his famous 2004 convention
address, but a June 2007 speech in Connecticut. In it, he described his
One Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to
Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago.
And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity
of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone
named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that
those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, he would accomplish with me
if I placed my trust in him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just
a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active,
palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk
down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about
as a choice and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks
sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical
bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on
the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself
to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his
To be able to express this kind of religious conviction without disturbing or
alienating the growing phalanx of secular voters, especially on the left, is
quite an achievement. As he said in 2006, “Faith doesn’t mean that you
don’t have doubts.” To deploy the rhetoric of Evangelicalism while
eschewing its occasional anti-intellectualism and hubristic certainty is as
rare as it is exhilarating. It is both an intellectual achievement, because
Obama has clearly attempted to wrestle a modern Christianity from the
encumbrances and anachronisms of its past, and an American achievement, because
it was forged in the only American institution where conservative theology and
the Democratic Party still communicate: the black church.
And this, of course, is the other element that makes Obama a potentially
transformative candidate: race. Here, Obama again finds himself in the center
of a complex fate, unwilling to pick sides in a divide that reaches back
centuries and appears at times unbridgeable. His appeal to whites is palpable.
I have felt it myself. Earlier this fall, I attended an Obama speech in
Washington on tax policy that underwhelmed on delivery; his address was wooden,
stilted, even tedious. It was only after I left the hotel that it occurred to
me that I’d just been bored on tax policy by a national black leader. That I
should have been struck by this was born in my own racial stereotypes, of
course. But it won me over.
Obama is deeply aware of how he comes across to whites. In a revealing passage
in his first book, he recounts how, in adolescence, he defused his white
mother’s fears that he was drifting into delinquency. She had marched into
his room and demanded to know what was going on. He flashed her “a reassuring
smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry.” This, he tells us, was
“usually an effective tactic,” because people
were satisfied as long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden
moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved—such a pleasant
surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all
And so you have Obama’s campaign for white America: courteous and smiling and
with no sudden moves. This may, of course, be one reason for his still-lukewarm
support among many African Americans, a large number of whom back a white woman
for the presidency. It may also be because African Americans (more than many
whites) simply don’t believe that a black man can win the presidency, and so
are leery of wasting their vote. And the persistence of race as a divisive,
even explosive factor in American life was unmissable the week of Obama’s tax
speech. While he was detailing middle-class tax breaks, thousands of activists
were preparing to march in Jena, Louisiana, after a series of crude racial
incidents had blown up into a polarizing conflict.
Jesse Jackson voiced puzzlement that Obama was not at the forefront of the
march. “If I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena,” he remarked. The
South Carolina newspaper The State reported that Jackson said Obama was
“acting like he’s white.” Obama didn’t jump into the fray (no sudden
moves), but instead issued measured statements on Jena, waiting till a
late-September address at Howard University to find his voice. It was
simultaneously an endorsement of black identity politics and a distancing from
When I’m president, we will no longer accept the false choice between
being tough on crime and vigilant in our pursuit of justice. Dr. King said:
“It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.” We can have a crime policy
that’s both tough and smart. If you’re convicted of a crime involving
drugs, of course you should be punished. But let’s not make the punishment
for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine
when the real difference between the two is the skin color of the people using
them. Judges think that’s wrong. Republicans think that’s wrong, Democrats
think that’s wrong, and yet it’s been approved by Republican and Democratic
presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and make it
right. That will end when I am president.
Obama’s racial journey makes this kind of both/and politics something more
than a matter of political compromise. The paradox of his candidacy is that, as
potentially the first African American president in a country founded on
slavery, he has taken pains to downplay the racial catharsis his candidacy
implies. He knows race is important, and yet he knows that it turns destructive
if it becomes the only important thing. In this he again subverts a Boomer
paradigm, of black victimology or black conservatism. He is neither Al Sharpton
nor Clarence Thomas; neither Julian Bond nor Colin Powell. Nor is he a
post-racial figure like Tiger Woods, insofar as he has spent his life trying to
reconnect with a black identity his childhood never gave him. Equally, he
cannot be a Jesse Jackson. His white mother brought him up to be someone else.
In Dreams From My Father, Obama tells the story of a man with an almost eerily
nonracial childhood, who has to learn what racism is, what his own racial
identity is, and even what being black in America is. And so Obama’s
relationship to the black American experience is as much learned as intuitive.
He broke up with a serious early girlfriend in part because she was white. He
decided to abandon a post-racial career among the upper-middle classes of the
East Coast in order to reengage with the black experience of Chicago’s South
Side. It was an act of integration—personal as well as communal—that called
him to the work of community organizing.
This restlessness with where he was, this attempt at personal integration,
represents both an affirmation of identity politics and a commitment to carving
a unique personal identity out of the race, geography, and class he inherited.
It yields an identity born of displacement, not rootedness. And there are
times, I confess, when Obama’s account of understanding his own racial
experience seemed more like that of a gay teen discovering that he lives in two
worlds simultaneously than that of a young African American confronting racism
for the first time.
And there are also times when Obama’s experience feels more like an immigrant
story than a black memoir. His autobiography navigates a new and strange world
of an American racial legacy that never quite defined him at his core. He
therefore speaks to a complicated and mixed identity—not a simple and
alienated one. This may hurt him among some African Americans, who may fail to
identify with this fellow with an odd name. Black conservatives, like Shelby
Steele, fear he is too deferential to the black establishment. Black leftists
worry that he is not beholden at all. But there is no reason why African
Americans cannot see the logic of Americanism that Obama also represents, a
legacy that is ultimately theirs as well. To be black and white, to have
belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a
majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be
more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything—this is an increasingly
common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. Obama
expresses such a conflicted but resilient identity before he even utters a
word. And this complexity, with its internal tensions, contradictions, and
moods, may increasingly be the main thing all Americans have in common.
None of this, of course, means that Obama will be the president some are
dreaming of. His record in high office is sparse; his performances on the
campaign trail have been patchy; his chief rival for the nomination, Senator
Clinton, has bested him often with her relentless pursuit of the middle ground,
her dogged attention to her own failings, and her much-improved speaking
skills. At times, she has even managed to appear more inherently likable than
the skinny, crabby, and sometimes morose newcomer from Chicago. Clinton’s
most surprising asset has been the sense of security she instills. Her
husband—and the good feelings that nostalgics retain for his
presidency—have buttressed her case. In dangerous times, popular majorities
often seek the conservative option, broadly understood.
The paradox is that Hillary makes far more sense if you believe that times are
actually pretty good. If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a
deep one, if you think that pragmatism alone will be enough to navigate a world
on the verge of even more religious warfare, if you believe that today’s
ideological polarization is not dangerous, and that what appears dark today is
an illusion fostered by the lingering trauma of the Bush presidency, then the
argument for Obama is not that strong. Clinton will do. And a Clinton-Giuliani
race could be as invigorating as it is utterly predictable.
But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our
divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and
constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk
changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is
caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a
distance, he is necessary. At a time when America’s estrangement from the
world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal
enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual
yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe
anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as
ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.
We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill
Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.