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