« March 25, 2007 - March 31, 2007 | Main | April 29, 2007 - May 05, 2007 »

April 08, 2007

Something New

By Carl Goldstein

What are we to make of the Barack Obama phenomenon? From political unknown to US Senator to '04 Democratic convention sensation to leading candidate for the '08 presidential nomination, he has emerged to shock many with the depth and breadth of both his fund-raising prowess and political appeal.

Offspring of a man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, raised in a series of internationalist, multicultural milieus -- grade school at an Islamic school in Jakarta, pre-teen and teenage years in multiracial Hawaii, high academic achievement and honor at Harvard Law School, where he became editor of the Law Review -- Obama is unique.

For one who cherishes a healthy skepticism toward the possibilities inherent in America's two-party system, it's hard not to consider Obama's emergence on the political scene as one of the most hopeful developments to come down the pike since....well, for a long time. Will he be the first black president? And what does that possibility say about our country?

Let's start with the qualities that make him an attractive candidate. He's young and handsome. He's a "fresh" presence on the political scene who makes a point of speaking in a unifying and positive manner. He's capable of an eloquence born of the black church, which undoubtedly helps him to rise above the ghost-written, focus group-tested rhetoric on which all too many politicians rely.

It helps that Obama is able to present the case for the progressive agenda -- universal health care, tax equity, taking action against global warming, opposition to the war --in the same affirmative language. These are positions that in substantive terms show widespread support among voters yet have been successfully tarred and feathered by Republican strategists from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, who have been able to make the L word into an epithet.

In contrast to the race-infused politics of previous election cycles, however, Obama's multiracial background makes him all the more appealing to a broad spectrum of the American public, including many whites.

Does it mean we are finally moving beyond race? Not necessarily. Many whites believe that active discrimination against blacks is a thing of the past and that, therefore, the poverty and other ills afflicting many blacks and other people of color stem mainly from a lack of motivation, bad personal choices, or other such causes.

Obama's emergence may owe something to whites who believe they see in him an affirmation that America is truly the land of opportunity. That we live in a country which truly does reward hard work, intelligence, and a willingness to "play by the rules." And I believe there is a sense on the part of many white Obama supporters that by embracing a black candidate they are actually helping the nation overcome its legacy of racism and discrimination.

Many blacks, for their part, like him -- not because he's black, but because he's proven his commitment to working on behalf of the black community. He took time between college and law school to work as a community organizer in Chicago's impoverished South Side. And after law school he turned down job offers from prestigious corporate law firms in favor of practicing civil rights law.

And they like him because he married a highly accomplished black woman and attends a mostly black church. For all his comfort and accomplishment in a white-dominated world and his background in a multicultural world, he's embraced his black roots as well.

For Obama, securing the nomination, let alone being elected, is obviously far from assured. But as the process unfolds, Obama's trump card may prove to be the war: he is the one major candidate with a clear record of having opposed the war from the beginning. The concerns he raised before the war -- on the floor of the Illinois State Senate or, as here, at an antiwar rally in Chicago on Oct. 26, 2002, still resonate:

"I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US 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."

For Obama, being proved right on the central issue of our time is surely no comfort, given the dire consequences Bush's war has imposed upon the US, Iraq, and beyond. But it certainly puts the lie to the most frequently heard criticism regarding Obama -- namely, his lack of experience.

The formidable money machine of Hillary and Bill Clinton, together with Hillary's undeniable political appeal, will undoubtedly make this a close battle. And in truth, the nation would probably be well-served by a President (Hillary) Clinton or Edwards or -- for that matter -- Gore. But I believe it is Obama who possesses the qualities capable of truly setting us on a more progressive, more inclusive path.

Posted by Carl at 01:13 PM | Comments (0)