1/14/08 Wash. Post (Bus. Sec.)
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's upset victory in the New Hampshire
primary last week was every bit as impressive as Sen. Barack Obama's
Iowa caucus breakout five days before -- if anything, more
impressive, since his win was predicted and hers unforeseen. But the
reactions to the two events couldn't have been more different.
Obama's Jan. 3 triumph let loose a giddiness bordering on
exhilaration among voters and, especially, media commentators, who
hailed his triumph as "historic," even though he was not in fact the
first African-American to win a major presidential nominating
contest. (Jesse Jackson won 13 primaries and caucuses in 1988.) By
contrast, when Clinton overcame long odds to become the first woman
in U.S. history to win a major-party primary, no leading news outlet
trumpeted this landmark feat. Many failed to mention it at all.
This startling difference underscores one of Obama's advantages
heading into the do-or-die Feb. 5th contests. "Obamamania" sputtered
in the Granite State, but it is far from dead. Many of the voters
and pundits who were thrilled by Obama's compelling Iowa speech 10
days ago remain intoxicated, heady with the hope that he can deliver
not just "change" -- any candidate running would do that -- but a
categorically different (begin ital) kind (end) of change from
Clinton or the Republican candidates. So what explains the magic?
The most obvious explanation is Obama's stirring oratory, with its
notes of generational change and unity. The key to his seduction,
though, resides not just in what he says but in what remains unsaid.
It lies in the tacit offer -- a promise about overcoming America's
shameful racial history -- that his particular candidacy offers to
his enthusiasts, and to us all.
Obama's allure differs from the infatuations of past election cycles
because it can't be traced to what he has done or will do. In his
legislative career, Obama has produced few concrete policy changes,
and you'd be hard-pressed to find a rank-and-file fan who can cite
one. Not since 1896 -- when another rousing speechmaker, William
Jennings Bryan, sought the White House -- has the zeal for a
candidate corresponded so little to a record of hard accomplishment.
But merely asking if Obama has done enough for us to expect he'd be
a good president misses the point, because that measures the past
rather than imagining the future.
Yet if Obama charms us by pointing to tomorrow, he doesn't come
bearing a new ideological vision. In the 1980 primaries, the
insurgent Ronald Reagan won on his robust, pro-military,
anti-government conservatism, a philosophy that until then had
languished even within the GOP. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton
triumphed because he was the first Democrat since the 1960s to
formulate a viable and vital new liberalism -- one rooted in years
of policy wonkery, a frank reckoning with his party's failures and
an early recognition of the importance of globalization.
But where Clinton converted voters to his philosophy with
binder-thick proposals, from AmeriCorps to welfare reform to the
earned-income tax credit, Obama fans rarely tout his specific ideas.
No one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much
from Hillary Clinton's. On the contrary, Obama's ideology, insofar
as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream
liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and
process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai
Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic
Party's working-class base than to upscale professionals.
The Obama phenomenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who
he is. As the social critic John McWhorter has written, "What gives
people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the
idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules
our land." He is the great white hope.
None of the candidates has discussed race much this year. Even John
Edwards' focus on poverty primarily stresses class, not race. But
silences can reveal as much as words.
When Sen. Joe Lieberman accepted the Democratic vice presidential
nomination in 2000, he exulted, "Only in America," and he celebrated
his Jewishness in his opening spiel. But the first words of Obama's
victory speech in bone-white Iowa -- "You know, they said this day
would never come" -- alluded to race only through deft indirection.
The national unity he went on to outline was, superficially, a
harmony between red and blue states, with the much more elusive and
important reconciliation between white and black America left tacit.
Not until his closing did Obama acknowledge the speech's subtext
with a remark about lunch counters and fire hoses, Selma and
Montgomery, and "a father from Kenya." Throughout, his voice and
cadences suggested that he had studied Martin Luther King Jr.'s
register and rhythms, the better to subtly evoke liberalism's great
lost moment of revolutionary achievement and unfulfilled promise.
Obama's rhetorical gifts clearly contribute to his allure. But that
allure resides not simply in the mellow timbre of his larynx but,
more deeply, in his near-perfect pitch in talking about race to
white America. Obama doesn't shun race altogether -- if he did, he
would provoke suspicions -- and he certainly doesn't "transcend"
race, whatever that means. But neither, as the social theorist
Shelby Steele has written, does he rub white America's face in its
corrupt history of slavery and segregation. Traditionally, whites
have appreciated such gentleness.
History provides a precedent of sorts: In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a
dashing, almost aristocratic figure who defied many nasty
stereotypes of Irish Catholics, made Protestants feel not just safe
in voting for him but downright virtuous. They could flatter
themselves that they were not prejudiced while still choosing a
candidate as cultivated as any Brahmin. Similarly, Obama -- whose
strongest appeal has thus far been to upscale white liberals --
allows those whites to feel good about themselves and their country.
He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on
slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever.
At the same time, Obama doesn't threaten or discomfort whites. He
doesn't strike them as wronged or impatient, or as the spokesman of
a long-subjugated minority group or even as someone particularly
culturally different from themselves. As much Kansan as Kenyan,
Obama does not descend from families who suffered American slavery
or Jim Crow. His family tree has fewer slaves than slaveholders,
fewer chains than Cheneys.
This background may be what some people (mainly blacks) have meant
when they asked the regrettable question of whether Obama is "black
enough" to earn their votes. But Obama has always been black enough
for his elite white enthusiasts, who would never presume to judge an
African-American's racial authenticity -- indeed, are all too happy
to have such a question be kept, by prevailing norms, off limits to
Some pundits scratched their heads when Obama was trailing Clinton
among black voters. (He recently pulled even or ahead.) But it made
perfect sense. Clinton had a track record of working for
African-Americans' interests. Obama was not just skirting
controversies such as the "Jena Six" -- the black Louisiana
teen-agers punished disproportionately last year for their role in a
racial fracas -- but was aiming his appeals squarely at the white
Iowans who he knew could make him the front-runner.
None of this is to minimize the barriers that Obama has faced and
still faces because of his race. (It's possible that the so-called
Bradley effect -- the inclination of some voters to support a black
candidate in talking to pollsters or in public caucuses but not in
private voting booths -- artificially boosted his pre-primary New
Hampshire poll numbers. But as the pollster Lee Miringoff notes,
those surveys actually predicted Obama's final numbers correctly
while underestimating Clinton's, suggesting that late deciders gave
her the win.) And racism is a far fiercer demon in America than
anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish prejudice. Nor is this analysis of what
stirs his enthusiasts meant to deny that an Obama presidency would
be a watershed. But neither would the election of Obama be quite the
same thing as the election of Jesse Jackson or Shirley Chisholm.
Ultimately, it is a fantasy of easy redemption. America's racial
history -- mixed into our culture at its foundation -- will be with
us always, even as personal prejudice recedes and inequality is
chipped away. For all we know, a President Obama might make the
so-called underclass his top priority. But Obamamania -- the
phenomenon, not the man -- leads us to believe that if only we vote
for an African-American, an avatar of "change" and healing, we can
slough off the burdens of our past -- the burdens of finding answers
to problems such as the rising number of out-of-wedlock births, the
obscene size of the black male population behind bars, the rotten
state of city schools, the simmering white resentment about
affirmative action, the black-white gap in life expectancy and the
cascade of government failures that turned Hurricane Katrina from a
breakdown of emergency relief into a disgraceful racial scandal.
Obama's boosters are not fired up about finally confronting those
intricate and intractable problems, for which the answers lie not in
identity but in politics and policy. Inspiring and exhilarating as
it is, Obamamania allows us to sidestep the hardest challenges, at
least for now.
David Greenberg is a historian at Rutgers University. He is at work
on a history of spin in American politics.