Back in the early civil rights days when people were beginning to explore race relationships, there was one story you heard over and over again. It went like this:
I went to a suburban high school in (you name it). We had one black boy in our class. No one ever spoke to him and he never spoke to anyone. But in our senior year we elected him class president.
A similar phenomenon now seems to be boosting the stock of Barack Obama.
The kids in those suburban high schools, of course, were trying to bridge what seemed like an unbridgeable racial divide. It was a nice gesture. (In another version of the story, the black kid was voted "most congenial" or "most popular.") But it seems a pretty slender reed upon which to base a Presidential campaign.
Nonetheless, Barack Obama is the candidate of the hour. A smart, well-spoken Harvard Law School graduate, he gave a rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention even while he was running his first campaign for Senate. On the basis of this slim resume, Time just featured him on the cover as "our next President."
How has Obama earned such an accolade? Well, he is a former Chicago community organizer with a lawyer wife and two attractive children. His father was a Kenyan Muslim and college professor who left when he was two years old. His mother was a poor Midwesterner who married at 18 but completed her education and became an anthropologist. She later married an Indonesian and moved to Jakarta, where Barack spent four delightful years "chasing chickens and dodging water buffalo." As a teenager, he returned to Hawaii, where his grandparents took over his upbringing. In short, in his younger years Obama probably saw more of the world than many Americans experience in a lifetime.
He also appreciates and understands the story of his country. As he writes in The Audacity of Hope:
When I find myself in such [bad] moods, I like to take a run along the Mall....Most of the time I stop at the Washington Monument, but sometimes I push on [to] the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. . .
And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. This nation's founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculation to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those like Lincoln and [Martin Luther] King, who ultimately laid down their lives in the service perfecting an imperfect union. And all the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children... brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams.
It is that process I wish to be a part of.
My heart is filled with love for this country.
It is that sort of haunting reflection that has rocketed Obama into prominence.
All this is making some people a little nervous. Conservatives don't like it, of course, because it seems like an affirmative action Presidency. Here comes this guy who has little more to say for himself than an interracial background and that's supposed to make him a candidate? Rush Limbaugh has been calling him "Osama Obama" -- albeit in mock tribute to Ted Kennedy's famous malapropism.
But a lot of liberals aren't very happy, either. After all, Obama's meteoric rise is the only thing currently dimming Hillary Clinton's star. That's why the long knives are already coming out. Even as copies of The Audacity of Hope arrived on the shelves, Harper's had a cover story, "Barack Obama, Inc.," arguing he's just another politician. Columnist Andrea Batista Schlesinger announced her opposition because Obama "backed an energy bill that piles big subsidies on oil and gas companies and voted to make it even harder for regular people to get access to the courts when they've been hurt by corporations." On the other hand, Richard Cohen says the best thing about Obama is that he wasn't around in 2003 to vote on the War in Iraq. Why not choose candidates right out of high school?
Obama has a very nice perspective on his own party:
Mainly...the Democratic Party has become the party of reaction. In reaction to a war that is ill conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism, and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our politics with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and wait for a White House scandal.
What will probably get him in trouble is his desire to be all things to all people. Straight out of the Clinton playbook, Obama is billing himself as a mediator, a bridger of gaps, a thoughtful moderate. All this works for a while but eventually becomes monotonous. Right-to-lifers have a point but he still favors abortion. Free-traders have a point but he still voted against the Central American Free Trade Association. He sympathizes with Christians who find themselves excluded from public places but notes "we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." And so forth.
Where this falls apart completely is in foreign affairs. Reading The Audacity of Hope, you'd think September 11th was an auto accident a few years back in which somebody's grandmother got killed:
It had been four and a half years since I'd first heard reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I had been in Chicago at the time, driving to a state legislative hearing downtown. The reports on my car radio were sketchy, and I assumed that there must have been an accident, a small prop plane perhaps veering off course.
All this occurs on page 291 of a 362-page book. There is no sense of urgency, no recognition that we are in a cruel international conflict and that our world has changed forever.
As a solution, Obama dutifully recites the Democratic line: FDR and Truman confronted our enemies through consensus. They got international support for their actions. (Somehow the Korean War gets lost in all this.) We should do the same. Just get everyone in the world on board and there won't be any need for those nasty conflicts.
All this leaves Obama seeming a little wet behind the ears. The domestic stuff may seem conciliatory but he is lost in a world where terrorism easily crosses international boundaries, where religion can be a rationale for violence, and where "people of color" are often at each other's throats. The genocide in Darfur, for example, is a matter of Sudanese Muslims slaughtering Christian black Africans. How do we conciliate our way out of that one?
In the end, candidate Obama's biggest problem may be that he is in the Senate. As John Kerry discovered in 2004, that means voting on too many important issues. (Hillary Clinton faces the same problem, of course, but her charisma dates from her days in the White House.) My advice to Obama is to go back to Illinois and run for Governor in 2010, get some executive experience, and while you're at it try to formulate a little more realistic view of the world. One Jimmy Carter a century is enough.
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