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

The Political Wonder That Is Obama


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PTZeleza's pictureIt has been a dazzling performance, historic in its possibilities:  a black man electrifying America’s imagination, pulverizing the ferocious Clinton machine, collecting electoral victories with deceptive and decisive ease, seemingly unstoppable on his amazing journey to the U.S. presidency. That is the political wonder that is Barack Obama. It is an incredible story that has confounded pundits and scholars within the country and appears incomprehensible to many outside the United States. I have been watching this intriguing political drama with growing incredulity ever since Senator Obama declared his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, the home of the revered Abraham Lincoln, in January 2007, through the long season of silly preoccupations with his blackness and serious concerns about his electability, during his first astounding victory in Iowa on January 3 and his bitter defeat in New Hampshire five days later, to his stunning successes on Super Tuesday, and his subsequent momentum sealed in an unbroken chain of victories in ten states from Virginia to Maine, Wisconsin to Hawaii. 


To date, Senator Obama has won in 24 states (excluding the Virgin Islands) to Senator Clinton’s 10, which translates into a lead of 1361 delegates over Senator Clinton’s 1252 (2,025 are needed to win the nomination). The gap widens further when only pledged delegates are considered, excluding the so-called superdelegates comprised of Democratic Party leaders and officials—1199 for Obama and 1040 for Clinton. Even more extraordinary are the margins of victory for the young black male senator: he won by more than 55% in 20 states compared to 4 states for the older white female senator, by 65% and higher in 10 states as opposed to only one for Senator Clinton, and by over 75% in 3 states a feat the latter has not achieved anywhere. Thus the gap between the two in the popular vote is even wider than is apparent in the current allocation of delegates. For Senator Clinton to catch up with Senator Obama, let alone to win the nomination, she would have to beat her rival in the remaining contests by double digit margins that have eluded her so far.  That is of course not impossible, but a desperately daunting task. And the superdelegates, whose support she banked on,  are now anxiously looking over their political shoulders and recalculating their options. No wonder some pundits are busy writing obituaries of her presidential ambition as her campaign surrenders to faith in political miracles and sharpens its attacks against Senator Obama.


What accounts for Senator Obama’s meteoric rise from an obscure community organizer in Chicago to the celebrated frontrunner in the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential elections only three years after his election to the U.S. Senate? How has he been able to overwhelm the fabled Clinton electoral machine, forcing her once assumed inevitable candidacy into gasping for its political breath, a prospect that was unimaginable only a few weeks ago when upstart Obama’s audacity of hope was expected to perish in a Clintonian tsunami on Super Tuesday. If Senator Obama prevails and wins the nomination, and in November the presidency, still big ifs given the unpredictable twists and turns of electoral politics and the historic improbability of his candidacy, his success, and even if he does not win either, his momentous appeal thus far, could be attributed to four sets of votes: against Bush and Billary and for him and the future.


Seven years of the disastrous Bush presidency—perhaps the worst in U.S. history according to some scholars—have left most Americans deeply despondent at home and widely distrusted, if not despised, abroad. They despair over the unending and horrendously costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which are draining an economy reeling from a housing crisis and staring at recession and sapping the nation’s notorious self-assurance. They deplore bitter partisanship, opportunism, and callousness that have permeated and poisoned the political culture. The chickens of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, consummated during the Bush presidency, have come home to roost and the ugly results have been rather disquieting to many Americans leaving them yearning for new beginnings, for change. The huge and in some cases unprecedented turnouts at Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, easily eclipsing those of the Republican Party, are eloquent testimonies to America’s desire to transcend the Bush years.


It is a vote against the republicanization of America that began with the contested civil rights settlement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and which has finally run its course. Conservative principles and posturing increasingly sound like an old broken record out of step with the tempestuous rhythms of the times. This is what the Obama phenomenon has tapped into, a deep emotional need for change, for hope, for escape from the mean, fearful post-9/11 era. Watching him at his exhilarating multiracial rallies is to witness a more hopeful America gesturing to the future, a different America from that of Senator McCain who is often surrounded by dour old white men, an embarrassing public portrait that history is desperately seeking to leave behind.


If many Americans see redemption in the Democratic Party, within the party itself many are increasingly recoiling from a Clinton coronation, from a dynastic restoration of a Billary presidency. As President Clinton aggressively and angrily campaigns for his wife, Senator Clinton claims experience from her husband’s presidency, thereby both unwittingly suggesting that Hillary’s presidency will be as much Bill’s as the latter's was hers. It was perhaps in South Carolina that the electorate, beginning with African Americans, fully woke up to the insufferable conceit of the Clintons, their blatant sense of presidential entitlement when they sought to demean Senator Obama’s candidacy and diminish the Rev. Martin Luther King’s legacy. As Mr. Clinton was stripped of his honorary status as America’s first black president bestowed upon him with poetic playfulness by Toni Morrison, who proceeded to endorse Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton began to lose the black vote by embarrassingly overwhelming margins.


While the race card divorced the Clintons from Black America, negative campaigning reminded the rest of the electorate of the unprincipled politics of the Clinton Administration, the emptiness of triangulation, the moral decrepitude of the impeached president, which paved way for the moralizing terror of the current Bush Administration. While some trumpted the good old days of the 1990s, others remembered that it was under President Clinton's watch that the Democratic Party lost both houses of congress, many governorships and state legislatures, and the rightwing agenda of dismantling the welfare state was pursued with vigor. As Cassandra R Veney stated on The Zeleza Post, Clinton was not a friend of black people whether in America or Africa contrary to the popular mythology. The fresh senator from Illinois benefited from the rising discontent with the Clintons, which overshadowed the historic importance, in gender terms, of Senator Clinton’s own candidacy. 


But Senator Obama did not simply ratchet up negative victories. He won because of the redemptive potential of his candidacy, the promise to redeem white America from the enduring guilt of slavery and segregation and Black America from the gutter of second class citizenship and limited expectations, to renew the seductive narrative of the American dream, restore hope to an eternally optimistic people, to rebrand the country’s tattered image in the world. Not surprisingly, his mesmerized audiences at his rapturous rallies receive his soaring oratory with the ecstasy of converts at a religious revival and revelers at a rock or rap concert. Senator Obama possesses that most elusive and valuable of political attributes—charisma—that is often embodied in, and projected onto, a leader in times of national crisis when the population is yearning for civic salvation. And America desperately longs for racial reconcialiation at home and popular paternalism abroad.


However, Obama's astonishing electoral successes go beyond charisma, or the appeal of his blackness for a postracial America exemplified in his biography as a son of a Kenyan-Kansan couple who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and went to Ivy League colleges, or the eloquence of his speeches; it is also a tribute to the brilliance of his organizational skills. Senator Barack has skillfully built a remarkable electoral machine, a modern mass movement that combines old style community organization, hardball party politics, and digital mobilization. Through this he has been able to recruit volunteers, energize supporters, raise staggering amounts of money—$36 million in January alone—and establish a formidable campaign presence throughout the country.


Whereas the Clinton campaign concentrated on the large states, reminiscent of the farcical candidacy of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in the Republican primaries, and assumed the contest would be over on Super Tuesday and failed to plan for the day after, the Obama campaign prepared for a protracted campaign in every state, big and small, ignoring no community, rich and poor, men and women, democrats, independents and republicans, and all racial and ethnic groups in a methodical drive to win votes and delegates and, more grandly, to build a new democratic majority. No wonder he has increasingly extended his support across all demographic groups including those claimed to be bedrock Clintonites, putting the lie to one claim after another that Obama is only attractive to blacks, the young, men, and those earning more than $50,000 while Clinton has a lock on white women, the elderly, Hispanics, and blue color workers.


If he wins I suspect his organizational prowess will be studied more closely than the boisterous rhetoric of his speeches. Senator Obama has out-financed, out-organized, and out-maneuvered Senator Clinton at every turn except when it comes to launching negative attacks, which do not seem to have worked so far, not least because he has refused to be swift-boated. On this basis alone, he has proved a superior candidate to Senator Clinton who squandered an early lead, run out of money after raising nearly $120 million, and has managed a leaky operation that has been revamped several times, and has failed to find her voice despite the much-trumpeted 35 years of experience and her self-proclaimed readiness to govern from Day 1.


The votes for Senator Obama of course also represent a vote for the future as seen most poignantly in the way his candidacy has fired up the imaginations of the youth. In a way this is a generational contest, between the post baby-boomer and post-civil rights generations and the depression era and baby boom generations. Senator McCain, 71, the presumptive Republican nominee and Senator Clinton, 60, the fading Democratic aspirant represent the latter, respectively, whereas Senator Obama, 47, was born a year after John F. Kennedy, another inter-generational icon whose mantle Obama relishes, was elected in 1960. For older and establishment politicians including African Americans some of whom are anguishing over and even recanting their earlier support for Senator Clinton, the Obama juggernaut has been quite bewildering.


It shows that there might be a new postcivil rights generation—in terms of both age and sensibility—that does not find the idea of a black president such an improbable proposition. This hip hop and multiculturalist generation has grown up seeing blacks occupying high political offices in unprecedented numbers from mayors to governors to senators to judges to cabinet secretaries, and as professionals, not simply as idols of popular culture in sports and entertainment. This is to suggest there may be a cultural shift taking place in American society, a new social imaginary of citizenship might be emerging, underpinned by the very limited dispensations of the civil rights settlement the Republicans have worked so hard to overturn, as well as by new productions and consumptions of popular culture, and transformations in domestic and global racial geographies as articulated in demographic shifts and the circuits of globalization. 


What are the implications of the Obama candidacy for the Pan-African world? He will be a fascinating footnote if he fails to win the nomination. But if he does he will generate enormous pride among people of African descent everywhere, and should he proceed to capture the presidency he will write a new chapter in the history of the African diaspora in the Americas. He will not of course be the first diasporan African to assume a position of national leadership. Rulers of African descent are known in the histories of India and Andalusian Spain, for example. Even in the racially checkered history of the Americas several leaders of African descent emerged as presidents. Examples include from Mexico, Jose Maria Morelos (1765-1815), the revolutionary leader of the Mexican War of Independence and Vicente Guerrero (1732-1831), the second president of Mexico; and from Venezuela there is Jose Antonio Paez (1790-1873) who served as president three times, 1830-1835, 1839-1842, and 1861-1863. Thus, the United States is more than a century behind Latin America on this score.


However, as inspiring as his ascent would be, the import of his achievement would be more symbolic than substantive. In other words, a President Obama would not fundamentally alter the structural and social impediments that have long faced African Americans, nor would it significantly temper the imperialist impulses of the United States in Africa and other regions in the global South. This is because as important as the presidency is, it is only one center of power in the American hegemon dominated by the military, prison, corporate, and media industrial complexes. And Senator Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a radical, let alone a revolutionary figure; if he was he would not have gone this far in the deeply conservative American political system and culture.  He is as ensconced in the American mainstream as are all the white men and the white woman who have sought the presidency during this presidential election cycle. That does not mean I will not welcome, or even celebrate his victory. After all, I have made a small contribution to his campaign, my first in an American election, and his victory would be a welcome return on that investment. More importantly of course it would offer us all some respite from the unrelenting terror and mediocrity of the Bush years.

First Written February 20, 2008.



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