2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

What Obama Means By Unity


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Jonathan V Last
2/18/08 Wkly. Standard 8


Sometime before Barack Obama's strong showing on Super Tuesday, the Washington Post observed that the senator had been campaigning across this great land on a "platform of hope and change." Whether or not the Post was being arch, they had it about right.

Obama rarely speaks about policy specifics; "hope" and "change" are the two dominant messages he preaches on the stump. But he has two secondary themes: "straight talk" and "unity." They don't receive nearly as much attention: Perhaps because an examination of them shows Obama to be a somewhat conventional political figure.

During the course of his standard stump speech, Obama promises to deliver "a politics that [isn't] grounded in ideology, but in practicality. Not in spin and PR, but in straight talk." He promises to tell voters not what they want to hear, but the hard truths that they need to hear. And he portrays himself as the great uniter of the Republic. As the voiceover in one of his ads explains, "Only Barack Obama can bring a fractured people together. ... He embodies the hope of our nation."

But on both of these themes, Obama's behavior is very different from his rhetoric.

Start with the straight talk. During his South Carolina victory speech, the crowd kept chanting that "race doesn't matter." It was a comforting thought in the wake of an election where more than 80 percent of African Americans voted for the African-American candidate. And Obama fed that sentiment, saying, "The assumption that African Americans cannot support the white candidate ... we are here tonight to say that that is not the America that we believe in. I did not travel around this state ... to see a white South Carolina, and a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina."

But the uncomfortable truth is that race mattered very much for Obama in the early going. Not only did African Americans vote in overwhelming numbers for Obama in what looked, at least on the surface, like racial solidarity. But, as Real Clear Politics's Jay Cost discovered, a regression analysis of the voting in Nevada and South Carolina showed almost a straight-line correlation between the racial make-up of an area and the percentage of white votes Obama received: The more uniformly white an area was, the better Obama did among white voters; as the area became more racially mixed, Obama's percentage of the white vote dropped.

This phenomenon could mean any number of things and ultimately may be unimportant to the outcome of the election. But it does show that race matters to many Obama voters.

Then there's his stance on immigration. Obama is for comprehensive immigration reform. He says he wants to begin such reform by securing the border with Mexico, which he justifies by saying that we need to know who is coming into America. At the Los Angeles debate, for instance, he said "there is no doubt that we have to get control of our borders. We can't have hundreds of thousands of people coming over to the United States without us having any idea who they are."

Yet he dismisses the impact illegal immigrants have on low-wage workers. When asked about this, he said: "I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to." Immigration reform may or may not be a good idea on balance, but to refuse to recognize the pressures illegal immigration puts on low-end wages is to shy away from a very hard truth.

On the question of "unity," Obama's behavior is even more uneven. During one campaign stop in New Hampshire, Obama was heckled by anti-abortion protestors. When his decidedly pro-abortion crowd began to jeer them, Obama defended the protestors, saying that their demonstration was honorable and within the great American political tradition. It was a striking moment of Obama acting as a unifying presence.

Yet a few weeks later, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Obama released a statement that was decidedly less unifying. He called abortion a "fundamental right" and boasted that he has always been a strong supporter of "reproductive justice." He said that Roe "is about more than a woman's right to choose; it's about equality." Nothing in his fullthroated defense of abortion-ondemand went so far as to hope that abortion could be safe, legal, and rare.

The more closely you listen to Obama, the more obvious it becomes that while he's very much for civility, his commitment to unity is suspect. He frequently says that after he's elected president, Americans will be able to "take our country back." He also talks about bringing together the people who have "lost faith in this country."

There is a real divide between those who think that America is doing okay, and can do better, and those who think that America has been hijacked and must be taken back from some nebulous other. But Obama has no interest in bridging this chasm. When he talks about unity, Obama means uniting the people who agree with him. He wants to unite 51 percent of America. And if you follow him around enough, very occasionally he lets that notion slip.

One night in New Hampshire, Obama embarked on a long discourse that hinted at what his idea of unity entails:

[I]n my own life, I've discovered that if you really know what you stand for, if you know what you believe in, if you know who you are fighting for, if you know what you care about and cannot be compromised-then you can afford to reach out across the aisle. You can talk to people who don't agree with you. And you do so not just because you think that you're always going to persuade them, but because people out in America, outside of Washington, are listening.

And they want to see that we can-that we don't have to agree on everything to work on something. That we can disagree without being disagreeable. That's how we can attract independents [to the] change agenda. That's how we can attract some Republicans. That's how we build a working majority for change. ... And you can afford to be courteous. And you can say, "Yes, sir." And "No, sir." "Yes, ma'am." "No, ma'am." But if you're going to be in the way of change, get out of the way-we're pushing you aside. Very politely of course. That's how we win elections.

Obama's definition of unity sounds a lot like power politics. But at least he wants to practice it politely. For a Democratic party that has been dominated lately by anger and rancor, that's a change worth hoping for.


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