The nation’s Obama swoon has eased, arrested by Hillary’s swell of tears. But the force behind it gathers for resurgence. Its intensity is driven by yearnings as old as society itself, for a politics of the transcendent. Some intellectuals who fled Europe in the 1930s described a continent-wide “wholeness hunger”—a longing for release from corrupt, narrow, divisive parliamentary factions, a search for a more poetic, more binding politics.
There is some of that in the Obama fervor. In the wake of his Iowa triumph, one young light of the progressive blogosphere wrote, “Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of the word over flesh, over color, over despair.” One Chicago newspaper reporter’s book on Obama is proceeding with the working title The Saviour.
Obamaism responds to a specifically American need. In his lucid study of the candidate, A Bound Man, Shelby Steele notes that America has “has undergone a moral evolution away from racism so transformative that there is now something like a desire in the body politic to see a truly qualified black person in the White House.” But no previous black candidate has been plausible. Obama is, passing without ambiguity the ability threshold for holding the highest office.
In the age of affirmative action, attending Harvard as a black would not suffice. Winning the editorship of the Harvard Law Review—a position, Steele notes tersely, “gained through competition rather than through the suspension of competition”—most emphatically does. And Obama’s political talent mitigates his experience deficit. He bests his rivals at responding to tedious political questions with a nuanced or memorable phrase. He was correct about the Iraq War from day one. He can write. The autobiographical Dreams From My Father, with its vivid portraits and sardonic self-awareness, is a literary accomplishment no contemporary senator could match. Again, Steele: “The point is that Obama has separated himself from the deadly stigmas of black inferiority and white paternalism. This does not mean that people won’t consider his race in some way as they ponder his candidacy. It only means they can consider his candidacy without feeling guilted, intimidated, or otherwise manipulated by his race.” Not only is he plausible, his candidacy implicitly promises the healing of America’s oldest wound.
National polls show Obama running as well or better than Clinton in match-ups against Republicans. The conventional pundit wisdom is that while a dissolving GOP coalition could be
re-united against Hillary, Obama would have greater appeal to independents and restless Republicans. Such prognoses come not only from progressives, happy to tell you that leading Republicans have no idea how to run against a black candidate, but from conservatives, too. David Brooks has touted Obama’s moderate, consensus-seeking character in language so glowing some liberals interpreted it as a prelude to endorsement.
There is another opinion about this, however. It is held by some traditional conservatives who oppose Bush’s Iraq and Iran policies, those most open to supporting a Democrat if the Republicans, as seems likely, promise a foreign policy of more of the same. In a nutshell, this view is that Hillary would face a difficult race, but would probably prevail, as could have Edwards or Joe Biden or a fairly generic Democrat in a year when the Dems have a major tailwind. Obama would be their weakest candidate, who could lead his party into an electoral disaster.
This is not because of Obama’s race, which—other factors held equal—probably attracts more voters than it puts off. The weakness is the other major quality that progressive intellectuals find appealing in him: his cosmopolitanism, his relative unrootedness, the sense that he is harbinger not only of a new America where race doesn’t matter but of a globalized world where national sentiment is on the way out. He would not only be the United States’ first black president, but, to borrow immigration activist Mark Krikorian’s useful term, its first post-American one as well.
In his foreign-policy address before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last April, Obama asserted that America’s security is “inextricably linked to the security of all people,” a recipe for global interventionism so promiscuous as to make neoconservatives almost prudent by comparison. He is a proponent of global free trade and high levels of immigration. Much of his memoir is devoted to his quest to connect with an extended family in Africa. This world-man aura is not without appeal, especially after eight years of a president deaf to what foreigners think and feel. But taken as far as Obama does, it would be an electoral liability.
One must also consider that the Republicans—perhaps especially those now overflowing with praise for Obama—might actually want to win the presidential election. In Obama, they would have an opponent who has never faced a well-funded foe in a tough one-on-one race, never encountered a barrage of negative TV advertising. He might be able to take a political punch well, he may not have a glass jaw. But there is no evidence for it. Obama’s one statewide campaign was a romp over Alan Keyes, prompting one wag to remark that Obama’s general-election prospects would indeed be excellent if the Republicans nominated Alan Keyes.
Obama has never faced a white opponent who hit hard or low or who struck at the very quality that makes him most appealing to the Left blogosphere, his exoticism. He won’t face that test in the primaries: the nearest the Hillary camp might come is former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey’s probably disingenuous claim that he “liked” Obama’s name and background and presumed ability to connect with the world’s one billion Muslims. Liberal bloggers slammed Kerrey for propagating a vicious “smear,” reminding one and all that multicultural good manners and political correctness are still the single factor that unites Democrats.
Republicans would not necessarily share such qualms. What might their campaign look like? You needn’t be a political consultant to imagine a pretty effective one. The natural point of approach, of course, would be the name. Can we acknowledge that no contemporary Trollope or Allen Drury seeking to dramatize the emergence of a talented half-African presidential contender would consider burdening his hero with a name that evokes both of America’s best-known enemies in the War on Terror? It would be far too over the top for social realism.
As the Democratic presidential nominee, Obama could quickly become known as Barack Hussein Obama. Republican commercials and talk radio would guarantee it. Negative TV spots could be relatively banal, pointing to some liberal highlights from Obama’s state legislature record—one very strong pro-abortion vote and another against people who used unregistered guns to protect their homes against intruders would do the trick. And then, a voiceover, intoning something like “Barack Hussein Obama—Right for America?”
A colleague asserts that this would be seen as no more than a childish playground taunt, that by autumn Americans will be so acclimated to Obama’s name that no repetition of it could weaken him. I doubt this. The political class, far more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country, has been intrigued with Obama for years. But by this summer, both parties will be playing to a broad electorate, in most cases more than twice the percentage of voters who turn out for a contested early state primary. Compared to primary voters, November voters are lower on the political awareness scale, less educated, less prosperous, less tuned in. Many will be forming an opinion about Barack Obama for the first time during and after the conventions, and branding him could be done comparatively quickly. Democrats in 1988 were astonished at how rapidly Michael Dukakis was “defined” by Willie Horton and how fast the Duke’s double-digit lead in national polls evaporated. They of course knew that Dukakis was a competent and tested governor, a proven debater, no slouch on law and order. How could blue-collar voters not see this? Similarly, John Kerry’s team found the Swiftboat charges so ludicrous they didn’t deign to answer them. But, to the campaign’s remorse, many voters found them believable enough. On what basis should we assume that white working-class voters (precisely those most resistant to Obama’s electoral appeal thus far) would be completely unmoved by a campaign geared to question Obama’s “American-ness”?
There is another vulnerability to Obama that his Democratic opponents would never exploit. Shelby Steele is right that America is more than ready for a black president and that Obama, in his present persona, does indeed embody “something that no other presidential candidate possibly can: the idealism that race is but a negligible human difference.” Like Tiger Woods, the nation’s most popular sports figure, he is a child of two races, embodying racial reconciliation in his very person. Hybridity, to use the fashionable academic term, is a growing phenomenon in America, driven by a burgeoning number of interracial marriages, visible in every large American city and even more so on elite college campuses. Obama is a natural beneficiary of this trend.
But there is another Obama, a young man abandoned at age 2 by his African father, who spent decades trying to fill the resulting void, in great part by trying very hard to become African-American. In his “60 Minutes” interview, Obama describes himself as “rooted in the African-American community” and also “more than that.” But this claim to “rootedness” in black America is nonsense. Dreams From My Father is a sometimes fascinating story of a sensitive young man trying to graft for himself an African-American identity, with very limited opportunities to do so. Obama was raised by his white mother, by an Indonesian stepfather, and then by his maternal grandparents in multiracial but not very black Hawaii. His efforts to become “black” without the context of any serious African-American community are labored. One of the book’s charms is that Obama the writer sometimes seems to recognize this, describing his self-absorbed quest, then stepping outside to ever so faintly mock the character trying so earnestly to be black.
But while the quest for black identity is interesting on a human level, it is not necessarily the fodder of a mainstream presidential campaign. One of Obama’s major stepping stones toward blackness was his membership in Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, a sprawling Afrocentric enterprise on Chicago’s South Side. Obama first became involved with Wright as a poverty organizer and later joined the church, with its “black value system,” “black freedom,” black this and black that. Trinity United is an atavism of the 1960s, with all the ties anyone would care to find to Louis Farrakhan and Muammar Quadaffi.
Identity politics is always understandable and often forgivable. I know of no evidence that Trinity United Church harmed anyone, and it probably did many attendees a lot of good. Nevertheless, Obama’s long-time membership gives rise to Steele’s impassioned and eloquent question:
That he would join a church so steeped in blackness, with so many other churches available, only underscores his determination to be transparently black. How else to reconcile this church membership (and for over a decade) with the fact of his own family—his white mother, grandmother and grandfather. It was not a ‘Black Value System’ that prepared Obama so well for the world. Nor was it ‘black community’ or ‘black family.’ It was not black anything. One could more easily argue that his good luck was to be born into a white ‘family,’ ‘community,’ and ‘value system.’ … So how can Barack Obama sit every week in a church preaching blackness and not object—not stand and proclaim that he was raised quite well, thank you, by three white Middle Westerners?
If that might be difficult to answer; the politics of it are not. Presumably they explain why, at the last moment, Obama cancelled plans to have Reverend Wright give the convocation at his campaign kickoff. A great part of Obama’s appeal is his blend, his hybridity—a brand in danger of being undermined by his very biography. If Republicans want to link Obama to the kind of black nationalism that would make many of his would-be supporters (and not only them) uneasy, they have only to make Jeremiah Wright and his preachings well known in the months leading up to November. This would be denounced as race-baiting, and may indeed be unfair. My guess is that the present-day Obama has moved beyond the young man searching for ways to be authentically black and is now more in synch with the Ivy League intellectuals who have flocked to his banner than with Afrocentrists of the South Side. But politics is often unfair.
Perhaps the Republicans have so internalized political correctness that it would be unthinkable for them to chip away at Obama’s character. But political parties, by their nature, want to win. John McCain has already opined, “Obama wouldn’t know the difference between an RPG and a bong,” foreshadowing a campaign that emphasizes personality more than issues, terrain hardly favorable to Obama.
Obama’s backers seem strangely overprotective of their man, as if they can’t conceive how any fair-minded person would not adore him. The few times questions like those raised above have been posted in the comments section of the highbrow progressive blogs, the reaction has been visceral, immediate, strident: it is racist even to mention this stuff, a point pounded home in vitriolic terms. The intense repudiation of Bob Kerrey’s rather innocuous observation about Obama’s name and background was astonishing, suggesting not confidence but fear that a very tender area was being exposed. It would seem that they too worry that their poetic and exciting candidate may actually be far weaker than the polls show.