Monday, February 19, 2007

What percentage of your support for Obama has to do with him being black?

A friend recently asked me, "Honestly, what percentage of your support for Obama has to do with him being black?"  I had to think about that for a moment.  Would I be enthusiastically supporting an inexperienced WHITE Senator with an interesting personal history and a gift for oratory?  The obvious answer is not nearly to the same degree, but that's not because I want to feel good about myself by "proving" I'm not a racist or because I support affirmative action or something like that.  There are a number of reasons:
A) My main concern is that a Democrat become the next President and my concerns about Hillary's electablity would exist regardless of Obama's race.  Obama's got "magic" -- people go NUTS for him in a way I've never witnessed -- and if he were a white JFK/Robert Kennedy who had this magic, I'd still be supporting him.  To win, the Democratic candidate must be able to draw support from people who traditionally vote Republican and I've been hearing from and reading about A LOT of people in this category who are considering supporting Obama, but would NEVER vote for Hillary or John Edwards.

B) I think we need a President who genuinely connects with average Americans, who knows what it's like to struggle to make ends meet, to suffer from discrimination, etc. -- both because I think this person is more likely to get elected, and also is more likely to lead this country in the right way once elected.  I think Bill Clinton had it -- that's why people nodded knowingly rather than laughing when Toni Morrison called him "the first black President."  (I know that some people believe it was phony -- I disagree -- but nobody denies that downtrodden people believed that Bill Clinton was one of them.)  I know John Edwards is grasping for this mantle, but I'm not convinced -- he's been too rich for too long.  As for George Bush, Al Gore, John Kerry, Hillary and the rest?  Gimme a break!
C) Some have expressed concerns that America isn't ready for a black President -- in other words, there are too many racists out there who, while they'll never admit it to pollsters, when they're in the voting booth, won't pull the lever for a black man.  Of course, the Republicans will subtlely (or not so subtlely) play the race card to exacerbate this problem.  Exhibit A would be Harold Ford's recently unsuccessful bid for Senate in Tennessee.  My answer is that Ford and Obama are different -- he had family baggage (corruption, etc.) and being a swingin' single, partying guy baggage that Obama doesn't have.  Also, while I know there are plenty of racists in this country, they sure as shootin' aren't going to vote for Hillary or Edwards either!  So I don't think Obama's blackness costs him many votes, whereas (perhaps I'm being naive) I think it could draw plenty of votes.  As one very politically experienced friend said to me, "There are lots of whites who feel good about themselves when they vote for a black candidate.  They go home and proudly tell their kids who they voted for.  This only happens, however, if the candidate is articulate, charismatic and NEVER plays the race card."  That's Obama!
D) Speaking of which, I think that racial divide in America is one of our most vexing issues.  I can't think a better way to start to close that divide than having a black President, especially one who doesn't appear to suffer from the victimization mindset.
E) Other than dealing with whatever mess remains in Iraq, I think the single most important job of our next President will be to repair America's image in the world, which is in tatters, and rebuild bridges with every other country in the world, which have been burned.  It is truly horrifying what has happened in this area under our current administration and it jeopardizes our security enormously.  Our next President not only needs to be able to really connect with average Americans, but average citizens around the world.  Read this excerpt from a recent Rolling Stone article ( and ask yourself if any other Presidential contender could even come close to this:

But on the same trip, it also began to become clear what it might mean if Barack Obama were somehow, despite it all, to become president of the United States -- the resonance it might have not just within the United States but beyond. On a bright morning, the senator's convoy pulled into the Kibera district of Nairobi, which is called, perhaps unscientifically, the largest slum in all of Africa. It is undoubtedly the most compact: There are up to 750,000 people living in less than two square miles of malign-looking shacks, with no electricity and no running water. The whole place stinks of human waste. Kibera has become a common stopping point for American notables touring Africa's stricken zones -- congressmen, Chris Rock, Madeleine Albright -- and the place has assumed a kind of indifference to visiting celebrity. This is not the case with Obama. The senator has no speech planned today -- he is here for a meeting on microfinance -- but thousands of people have choked the dirt paths through the ghettos. Obama biro, yawne yo! they shout -- "Obama's coming, clear the way!" His name, in its local rhythms, sounds almost like a religious chant. Kenyan police on horses, thin and jumpy animals, try to beat back the surging crowd.

When Obama is finished with his meeting, he comes out of a hut: a skinny American dude, looking more like thirty-five than forty-five, his face treadmilled-thin, all teeth and cheekbones, holding a megaphone at his side. The roar is deafening. For a second, Obama looks stunned. He lifts the megaphone to his lips, but he can't make himself heard. When he lowers it, he's grinning. For the first time, it seems as if some resistance has broken in Obama: His reluctance has been replaced by something deeper and more spontaneous. He raises the megaphone again. "Hello!" he calls out in the local dialect. The wave of sound that greets him is awesome. He half-loses it, just starts yelling into the megaphone: "Everyone here is my brother! Everyone here is my sister! I love Kibera!" The crowd is so loud that he can't be heard more than twenty feet from where he is standing, and so he begins to wade into the crowd, shouting into the megaphone again and again: "You are all my brothers and sisters!" The look on his face is one of pure joy. Months later, his eyes still glitter when he recalls the sheer spectacle of it all. "It was a remarkable experience," he says.

The residents in Kibera know little about Obama besides his race, the fact that his father is from this country and what the Kenyan papers have told them: that he represents a younger and more empathetic vision of America. It's enough. Here, at last, is what it would mean to have a black president of the United States, one with a feel for what it means to suffer the rough edge of American power. In Kibera, something raw and basic about global politics began to stir, to make itself heard. These people, among the poorest in the world, are hoping for something more. And in the shouting crowds and the ecstasy of the moment, it has begun to seem, for the first time, as if Obama wants it all, too.

Some might read this and shrug, asking "Why should we care if slum dwellers in Nairobi love Obama?" but I think this is critically important, especially since I think he'd get similar reactions around the world.


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