The sweet ironies of Obamania
by Rajan Philips
Barack Obama’s election as America’s first African American President is a historic answer to what really did not even begin as a question in the 2008 Presidential election. Obama did not question if America was ready for a Black President. He ran on the assumption it was. He defined his candidacy and secured his nomination over Hillary Clinton by his opposition to the Iraq war. Questions about Obama’s race, elitism and experience exercised many Americans during the Presidential election, but they were washed away by America’s financial tsunami and economic devastation. In the end, the election that began as an indictment against President Bush’s twin disasters – the war and the economy - went beyond his trial and conviction by the court of the American people and even the world community. Obama’s victory marks a huge step in America’s perpetual quest for a perfect union of equal citizens. It should inspire other states and societies of the world to similarly strive for equality among their peoples.
[President Elect Barack Obama on Election night Nov 4, 2008]
The appreciation of this achievement was best expressed, soon after Obama won the Democratic Party nomination, by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first female African American to hold high office in the Administration. “We the people”, she said, referring to the opening words of the Constitution, “is beginning to mean all of us”. She came out of her Republican loyalties again to congratulate Obama after the election. So did President Bush, gracious and fulsome in his praise for Obama and America’s historic milestone.
The tone for this coming together had been set by John McCain, the defeated Republican candidate, in his inspired concessionary speech on election night, in Phoenix. Turning to history rather than Hollywood for a parallel, McCain recalled not “Guess who is coming to Dinner”, but President Theodore Roosevelt’s dining with Booker Washington, a Black educationist, in the White House, in 1901. Not only did the dinner provoke national outrage but it also “proceeded under the disapproving gaze of a Negro butler". A hundred years later, America and ‘all her races’ are well at ease with a young and charming African American family taking tenancy of the White House.
Obama’s speech the same night, following John McCain, and in front of a vast multitude in Chicago’s Grant Park, was predictably magnanimous but remarkably subdued, sombre, earnest and resolute. In what was a palpable measure of the man, he seemed more preoccupied with the challenges awaiting his presidency than going giddy over his victory. He returned to his campaign theme of “change” and the rhetoric of “inclusion”, invoking the name of Lincoln to stress the importance of unity and inclusion, and echoing John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address to stress the difficulties ahead and call for a new sense of patriotism and dedication to public service.
“Tonight is your answer”
No American President in living memory has enthralled the nation and the world while winning an election. The Kennedy brothers became legends not in victory but in death. Rev. Martin Luther King bestirred all Americans including President Kennedy (who listened on the radio) with his “I have a dream” sermon at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in 1963. But he was a preacher, a seer and a non-violent activist, and he was not interested in political office. He too became a legend after his assassination. Obama attracted crowds like no one else, and he mesmerized them with his flights of oratory from ten thousand feet above. Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians thronged the Grant Park and many of them cried with joy when he told them “tonight is your answer” to any question or doubt about America’s standing, stability, or its future.
His inspirational eloquence almost became his Achilles Heel many times during the primaries and the Presidential campaign. There were not unreasonable doubts about his policy depths and organizational experience, given the challenges facing the country and America’s troubled relationship with the rest of the world. His calls for one inclusive America were derided as naïveté by the more partisan Democrats and the Republicans. But he has confirmed his mettle by running a flawless campaign based on human caucusing and electronic networking, and proved his point by pulling off a plurality of support.
All sections of Americans voted in much higher proportions for Obama than they had voted for John Kerry or Al Gore, the Democratic candidates in the previous two elections. He won small towns and States which pundits have set aside as Republican territory. America’s electoral map has been transformed, yet again. Lincoln, the Republican, ended slavery without enabling equality. Slavery gave way to segregation, socially, economically, politically and legally, as the Democratic Party dominated the confederate southern states for nearly a century after the civil war. Segregation was ended first legally by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, and then politically by the march of the Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King. President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act earned him his “place in history alongside Abraham Lincoln”, but in the process he sacrificed the Democratic Party’s support in the South.
In the forty years after Johnson’s presidency, there have been only two Democratic Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Southern Governors, for a combined total of twelve years. Barak Obama is the first Senator and Northerner to be elected President after John F. Kennedy, but while President Kennedy won by the smallest of margins, Obama’s victory is far more comprehensive. He has been credited with achieving a rare alignment within the Democratic Party – between its liberal elites and the African American base. Not without reason, he was criticized as being elitist and not “Black enough”. Obama is not elitist by property and pedigree like a Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Gore or McCain, but a “charter elite” as Maureen Dowd impishly described him.
He is a rare intellectual among politicians, one who not only reads but who can also write. Seldom, you will hear a politician technically describe race as an “organizing principle” of American society – a sure sign of being the intellectual son of an Anthropologist mother. Born to a White mother and a Kenyan student father, and raised in Indonesia by his mother and in Hawaii by his White grand parents, his later association with the African American tradition is more by choice and conviction than by inheritance and experience. His borrowing of the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” from Martin Luther King, to justify his candidacy over more experienced contenders, sounded a tad opportunistic at first but has since been vindicated not only by his campaign credentials but by the enthusiasm he generated among all Americans and around the world.
In his path-breaking speech, during the primaries, on America’s race relations and his own location in American society, he highlighted the generational differences in the experiences of racial oppression and discrimination and the struggles against them. He equally applauded America’s genius to continually and progressively change its internal polity. In every sense, Obama is the fortuitous beneficiary of the struggles by others before him, but he has added his own chapter to that saga. His chapter rhymes with the temper of the times; his is not one marked by the forensic persistence of Thurgood Marshall, or the messianic fervour of Martin Luther King, and certainly not the revolutionary agenda of Malcolm X.
Obama is more centrist than most Black leaders and many among the mass of supporters he has excited. In mixing faith and politics, he might be closer to Bush Jr than to Jeffersonian separation of state and religion. He might like to be avuncular like Reagan and less pugnacious than Bill and Hillary Clinton. He is more likely to err on the side of prudence like Bush Sr than do trial and error like Franklin Roosevelt. He is no more inexperienced than Lincoln was when he became President, but he will need in good measure the foreign policy flair of Kennedy and Nixon, the legislative prowess of Lyndon Johnson, and the economic mastery of Bill Clinton, if he is to successfully steer America through a period that is looming to be more difficult than anything that any President since Roosevelt has seen. What Barak Obama has in abundance is the good wish of everyone to succeed.