His unusual background and his ability to use it to articulate a hopeful version of the American dream have turned Barack Obama into a political star. But is the US ready for its first black president?by / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
On a cold December day in Manchester, New Hampshire, 1,500 Democrats are packed into a hall for an event that would normally attract a fraction of that number. They have come to see America’s new political sensation—Senator Barack Obama. The next day another 700 (and more than 100 journalists) flock to a signing event for his new book. William Shaheen, a prominent local Democrat, says: “Some of it is infatuation.” He is right.
As yet, Barack Obama has only taken the first step to a presidential run by establishing an exploratory committee. He is expected to formally declare on 10th February. Yet even the possibility of Obama’s participation has seen a bandwagon career straight through the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign. Polls now put him only marginally behind Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton. His possible entry has led at least one plausible candidate, Indiana senator Evan Bayh, to rule himself out. He has already been on the front cover of Time and been endorsed by Oprah. His recent book, The Audacity of Hope, reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and also won a Grammy for best spoken work recording. His every utterance is picked over for clues, both about his intentions and his character. Indeed, the fuss in New Hampshire was such that Obama quipped that it was “surprising to me, and baffling to my wife.” So what is it about the young black rookie politician with an odd name, who may not even run for president, that has so grabbed America’s attention?
Barack Hussein Obama first hit America’s consciousness with a rapturously received speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. He was then a little-known provincial politician, running for the Senate in Illinois. But the early buzz about his unusual talent, background and speaking ability led John Kerry to offer him a primetime slot. That night, he gave a taste of the themes that currently captivate the US: a remarkable personal story, and an ability to use this to articulate a thoughtful, hopeful version of the American dream.
The speech was divided in two. First, he gave a folksy spin on his upbringing. He introduced his Kenyan father, who “grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack,” and grandfather who “was a cook, and a domestic servant to the British.” He told of how his father’s hard work had got him to America, a country in which “the doors of opportunity remain open to all,” where he had met and married a white girl from Kansas. The second half dealt with themes of hope and opportunity, and modern barriers to their achievement. In a much quoted passage, he laid into “the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers” and declared: “The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”
Overnight, Obama became a political celebrity. The delivery was partly responsible. Obama’s sonorous voice imparts an air of profundity even to his platitudes. And while he avoids the excesses of the fiery pulpit style that typifies African-American politicians, there is enough of the Baptist sermon in his delivery to distinguish him from the focus group-tested norm. Yet oratory alone cannot explain the rapture. After four years of President Bush, the Democrats were desperate for leaders who could articulate a vision. It was in this speech that Obama used a phrase, “the audacity of hope,” that became the title of his second book and the message of his nascent presidential run. While John Kerry never did find a convincing vision, Obama’s message of faith in the American dream struck home. Just as Kerry failed to talk convincingly in the language of faith, Obama wove scripture into messages about the economy or the Iraq debacle. And while Kerry went on to fail the ultimate test, many in Boston that night began to think that Obama might, one day, pass it.
In his book The Audacity of Hope he writes that his mixed heritage meant he had “no choice but to believe in a vision of America.” With a black father, a white mother, a “sister who’s half-Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican,” and “blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac [an African-American comedian and actor] family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN general assembly meeting.” Such quips hide a messier and more interesting story, told in Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father. Published in his mid-thirties, shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, the book is a beautifully-written account of his upbringing, his time as an African-American community organiser in Chicago and a month-long trip to Kenya in search of memories of a father he had barely known. It is unusual for its frank descriptions of his troubled teenage years. In a passage likely to be repeated frequently in the coming months (if he runs), Obama admits to taking both cannabis and cocaine: “I had learned not to care… Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it… Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been heading: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.” Recently an interviewer asked about his marijuana use. He replied: “I did inhale. That was the point.”
Obama’s late adolescent struggles were a product of both a fractured family and his shifting personal and racial identity. His father left his wife and two-year-old son to return to Kenya, only to die later in a car accident. Upon hearing of his father’s death he says he “felt no pain, only the vaguest sense of opportunity lost.” He was raised by his mother, partly in Hawaii, then in Indonesia, where she moved for a soon-to-fail second marriage. He returned again to Hawaii, and lived with his maternal grandparents before leaving for university in California. But it was when he transferred to study at Columbia University in New York that he embarked on a newly serious path that would take him to a job as a community organiser in Chicago, one of the most racially segregated cities in America.
Race remains the defining issue of US politics, as important as class in Britain. So unsurprisingly, the question most often asked of Obama is: “Is America ready for a black president?” Americans have never found it easy to accept black politicians. Obama is currently the only black in the Senate, and only the third since Reconstruction. Recent black leaders in the mould of Reverend Al Sharpton often unnerve white America. Not so Obama. Understanding his appeal means first understanding why people are not put off by his colour. Not being a descendant of slaves, he himself admits that he starts from a different position from many black leaders. But it is the unusual way in which Obama learned to cope with his racial inheritance that marks him apart. As a child in ethnically ambiguous Hawaii, he grew up with little consciousness of his race, writing that the fact that “my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk—barely registered in my mind.” Such colour blindness, however, did not last long. As a teenager he chanced upon “a picture in Life magazine of a black man who had tried to peel off his own skin” by getting damaging chemical whitening treatment. Reading the article was, he said, like “an ambush attack” on his racial identity.
After this awakening, Obama quickly found himself caught between his various identities. He flirted with black power politics but found it unappealing. As a young leader in Chicago’s black community, he began to develop a balanced, thoughtful and (importantly) rarely angry approach to race. “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds,” he writes, “convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.” He became that unusual type of black leader—Colin Powell is the only other recent example—who is able to make America feel good about its racial heritage, more like Tiger Woods than Jesse Jackson. In his latest book, he writes of his hope that his own even-handed approach to race may now be mirrored by mainstream America. “Whatever preconceived notions white Americans may continue to hold, the overwhelming majority of them these days are able—if given time—to look beyond race in making their judgements of people.” Is America ready for a black president? In short, Obama thinks the answer is yes.
In his mid-twenties, Obama left Chicago to enter the bastion of America’s establishment, Harvard Law School. Although almost completely unmentioned in either of his books, it was here that he first showed a talent for consensus politics, winning a close election to become president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Having graduated, he returned to Chicago to work as a civil rights lawyer, and to lecture at the University of Chicago. He married, had two children, and decided to run, successfully, for the state Senate, and, unsuccessfully, for the US Congress. Undeterred by the latter defeat, he decided to enter the race for Illinois’s open Senate seat. Having won a competitive primary, and helped both by an unpopular Republican opponent and the glowing publicity provided by his convention speech, he won a thumping victory.
Back in December, in the packed hall in New Hampshire, Obama was forced to confront the hoopla that had gathered around his embryonic campaign. He declared, naturally, that he was “suspicious of hype.” But he went on to point out that: “People are hungry. They’re eager to be called to something larger than the small-minded politics we’ve had… I think to some degree I’m a stand-in for that desire.” And in this stand-in role, Obama’s fortunes are now closely tied to those of Hillary Clinton, previously the strong favourite to be her party’s candidate. Many Democrats feel that Clinton is unlikely to win in 2008, and so there has been much scouting around for an alternative. At the moment, Obama is it. Equally, the American media are desperate for any story other than that of a relentless but tedious Clinton, trudging tight-lipped towards the nomination. Together, these two factors explain at least part of Obama’s fast and easy rise. Or, as one waggish American journalist put it: “Obamamania! The audacity of hype!”
Yet a thoughtful approach to race and media hype do not fully explain the Obama phenomenon. Two further factors are crucial: his consensual style and his public use of faith. In his public remarks and in his books, Obama achieves a rare feat of political gymnastics in appearing both soothing and frank. He goes to great lengths to show that he has considered respectfully the ideas of his opponents, and tried hard to find such common ground as exists. In this he shares a talent with both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. At the same time, his ability to seem forthright and candid has earned the same reputation for straight talk that brought John McCain close to the Republican nomination in 2000.
This unusual combination is evident in a recurring theme of his recent book, the need to move beyond partisan divisions. “In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation… played out on the national stage.” After two deeply divisive presidents, Obama senses that there is a hefty electoral dividend for the politician who can move beyond the polarisation of the Clinton and Bush years. Indeed, Obama’s personal story and his thoughtful re-articulation of American dilemmas offer glimpses of something new: a post-boomer politics.
There are obvious limitations to this approach. Obama will find it difficult to navigate the conflicting demands of the voters for both bipartisan, consensual politics and strong leadership. Howard Dean was the last Democrat to enjoy Obama-esque levels of attention. Yet Dean was popular for precisely the opposite reason: he had a starkly partisan message, and was willing to stick it to President Bush. The conservative commentator David Brooks, a confirmed Obama fan, recently remarked that Obama could come to be seen as “the type of guy who comes into a restaurant saying there are 16 reasons to order the fish and 19 to order the meat.” In short, his thoughtful ruminations run the risk of being labelled a weakness, not a strength.
There is also often less to Obama’s consensus-building than meets the eye. The Audacity of Hope is full of passages in which he seeks common ground with opponents. Yet he tends to do so on relatively uncontroversial issues. Surely even the left, he argues, can agree that children ought to be spared seeing television adverts for impotence? And can’t the right agree that multimillionaire CEOs might give a little back to their struggling workers? In one extraordinary paragraph, he discusses the divide between the agrarian Jeffersonian and industrial Hamiltonian models of democracy—perhaps the most long-standing split in US politics—yet he rather too neatly discovers consensus between the two.
The limitations of this approach are clearest in Obama’s uninspiring approach to policy. Despite his reputation for reaching out to conservatives, he has an orthodox liberal voting record in the Senate (although he was one of only 18 Democrats to support the Republican-backed Class Action Fairness Act to limit class-action lawsuits). And for all its lucidity, The Audacity of Hope is startlingly light on original policy proposals. Obama’s section on globalisation, for instance, gives a coherent account of how increasing global competition is changing the US labour market. Yet his tentative solutions to these challenges tend either to be minor fixes, like introducing electronic patient records to lower health spending, or bland generalisations about a “new social compact” on education and investment. It often isn’t clear where Obama would stand on issues like further trade liberalisation, increased labour market protections or reforming America’s expensive pension and healthcare systems. In this, his politics have something of the mirror about them: he allows all to see a little of themselves in him. Yet if he does run, such thoughtful hedging will quickly be found wanting. Al Gore was famously unable to define what it meant to be a “Gore Democrat.” Defining what makes an “Obama Democrat” will take more than the ability to see both sides of every issue.
The second key to Obama’s appeal, as demonstrated in his convention speech, flows from his ability to speak in the language of religion. A few weeks before his New Hampshire visit, Obama gave a speech to mark World Aids day. He addressed more than a thousand evangelical church leaders at Saddleback, a mega-church in California. That a pro-choice Democrat was invited to address such a group was remarkable in itself. More important, however, is that Saddleback is the home parish of pastor Rick Warren, perhaps the most influential evangelical leader in America. Warren is the author of The Purpose Driven Life, a wildly popular religious book that has sold more than 20m copies. He is also pro-life, and culturally conservative. But with his trademark Hawaiian shirts and enthusiasm for traditionally liberal issues like Aids, poverty and climate change, he represents a new type of evangelical, distinct from the intolerance of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Evangelicals like Warren give Democrats hope that they might be able to narrow the divide between their party and evangelical voters, who are said to make up a quarter of the US electorate. The fact that Warren and Obama now consider each other friends suggests that Obama is already well placed to lead that reconciliation.
As with his approach to race, Obama’s facility with faith and values comes in part from his upbringing. His father was brought up Muslim, but became an atheist. His mother was a non-practising Baptist, and equally unconvinced by religion. Obama grew up a sceptic. In June 2006 he gave a major speech on religion in which he explained how he gradually found himself drawn to faith, both for the moral certainty it provided and because of his continued belief “in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change.” Eventually, he says, he found his peace with God and “submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.” He went on to highlight “our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation,” and to argue that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why Democrats are so excited by Obama’s ability to clothe a relatively orthodox liberal politics in convincing religious language. Yet at base, his calls for liberals to articulate a new moral vision, and to do so unfearful of faith, boil down to little more than a type of reheated communitarianism. A section of the American liberal left has long wished to move beyond the antiseptic language of individual rights and to reinsert into politics a moral vocabulary stressing responsibility and obligation. When Obama writes that Americans are troubled because “they want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives,” he sounds rather like Alasdair MacIntyre, the communitarian philosopher. Obama, in common with such thinkers, wants a full vision of the good life to animate our understanding of politics. This is easier said than done. Talk of values and morals in civic life is fine, but liberals often baulk at its implications. What, for instance, defends the right to an abortion, or to free speech, or affirmative action, if not an inflexible framework of liberal rights? Answering such tricky questions will be the test of whether Obama’s deft religious touch turns out to be more than a clever Christian outreach operation.
All this, of course, will matter for little if Obama decides not to run. At present, though, the signs are that he will. He is popular. He has proved adept at raising money (although he has also had to apologise for a dubious-looking property deal). Statistically, his likelihood of being elected president decreases the longer he stays in the Senate. Before becoming a senator he was, fortuitously, against the war in Iraq, and now takes the mainstream Democrat position of phased withdrawal. He is young and inexperienced. But, as he will doubtless point out, so were (respectively) Bill Clinton and Abraham Lincoln. And he is in the unusual position, as a black man going up against a woman, of being thought the more electable minority candidate, a position that is unlikely to be repeated.
And if he does run? It is quite possible that he could follow Howard Dean and see his campaign fall flat. It may be that in years to come, Americans will look back in wonder that they thought their next president could be a black man with a previous cocaine habit and a name—Barack Hussein Obama—that acts as a misspelled reminder of America’s three big middle east policy headaches. Yet even if this does happen, Obama’s rise tells us something about what Americans want in their leaders. They see in Obama that sense of optimism that their best politicians—Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton—project. It is this quality that led Mark McKinnon, an adviser to both President Bush and John McCain, to describe Obama as a “walking, talking hope machine.” And yet it is here, rather than in his policy shortcomings, that Obama runs the greatest risk of failure. In his latest book he describes the end of a campaign rally. “People will usually come up to shake hands, take pictures or nudge their child forward for an autograph.” When they talk to him, he continues, they often say: “Please stay true to who you are… Please don’t disappoint us.” The passage is knowingly written. In the end, Obama surely must disappoint many of those now infatuated by him. The extent to which he can do so without failing politically will determine whether his extravagant promise is even partially realised.