Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Obama: More Than Skin Deep?

It's hardly surprising that analysis of Barack Obama's sudden viability as a presidential candidate dwells on race. He is, after all, a black man whose main source of popularity at present seems to be with white voters. Like Colin Powell, moreover, he is often described as a black man almost perfectly engineered to appeal to white voters, at potential risk to the "authenticity" deemed essential to attact the African-American voters who are so important in the Democratic presidential nominating process, at leasts when it pivots beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.

Peter Beinert has an article up on the New Republic site examining the Powell parallel in detail, suggesting that Obama represents an implicit repudiation of other, more "authentic" African-American politicians, which could create a backlash among black voters generally. And last week Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post examined African-American ambivalence towards Obama, as reflected in his little-known congressional primary loss to Bobby Rush in 2000.

There's also the simple data point that national polls currently show Hillary Clinton trouncing Obama among black Democrats, which makes his overall robust poll numbers that much more remarkable.

But while fascinating, these race-based takes on Obama don't come to grips with the genesis of his startling appearance on the national political scene in August of 2004, when few Americans knew much about his personal story, or had experienced his "charisma" or marveled at his political skills. Ever since his famous Democratic Convention speech, Obama has been articulating what might be called the Great Alternative Democratic Message, and it clearly has some clout.

What is that message? It could be described as "The New American Patriotism," or "The Politics of Higher Common Purpose," or "Towards One America," or even "Meeting the Big Challenges." But whatever the precise rhetoric, its core is to suggest that Democrats can and will lift politics and government out of the slough of polarization, culture wars, smears and sheer pettiness characterized by the Bush-Rove era, transcending party and ideology to unite the country around an agenda that really matters.

This was the meta-message Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to embrace in 2004 in his pre-election book, The Two Americas. It was the original theme of John Kerry's campaign, until Bob Shrum convinced him to shift in the autumn of 2003 to a message focused on the candidate's biography (with fateful, perhaps fatal, consequences a year later). It was then picked up (or perhaps, according to insiders, accepted as a gift from former Kerry advisor Chris Lehane) by Wes Clark, whose campaign never really got its act together. And it was echoed in some respects by John Edwards, though his "one America" aspiration drew much less attention than his neo-populist "two Americas" indictment of the status quo.

But this alternative message never got a full test until Barack Obama, at the time still a state senator, made it the core of his "Red, White and Blue America" speech in Boston. And it's still Obama's distinctive message.

That's one important reason for the half-submerged skepticism about Obama in some precincts of the progressive blogosphere, where all his talk about unity and civility sometimes sounds uncomfortably like the much-despised "bipartisanship" of party centrists. But it still strikes a chord in the electorate, I suspect.

Obama must, of course, soon begin to fill out a more detailed message and agenda that explains exactly what Democrats should do to transcend the counter-polarization of the 2006 campaign and expand the party base, without repudiating principles or sacrificing unity. His success or failure in doing that may in the end have a greater impact on his candidacy than his alleged role in some great national psychodrama about race and identity.

UPDATE: Obama's announcement today that he would introduce legislation designed to force a withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq by March of 2008--subject to a suspension of the withdrawal if the Iraqi government meets strict benchmarks towards a political settlement--will undoubtedly be greeted with cheers in the progressive blogosphere, as a clarification of his previously cloudy ideological position in the 2008 field (expect a lot of talk about Clinton's "isolation" on "the Right.") But given public opinion on Iraq, which Bush's escalation plan has clearly pushed towards a quick-withdrawal stance, I don't think this really changes a single thing I wrote above about Obama's overall message.
-- Posted at 11:52 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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