By David GreenbergSunday, January 13, 2008; Page B04
The most obvious explanation is Obama’s stirring oratory, with its notes of generational change and unity. The key to his seduction, though, resides not just in what he says but in what remains unsaid. It lies in the tacit offer — a promise about overcoming America’s shameful racial history — that his particular candidacy offers to his enthusiasts, and to us all.
Obama’s allure differs from the infatuations of past election cycles because it can’t be traced to what he has done or will do. In his legislative career, Obama has produced few concrete policy changes, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a rank-and-file fan who can cite one. Not since 1896 — when another rousing speechmaker, William Jennings Bryan, sought the White House — has the zeal for a candidate corresponded so little to a record of hard accomplishment. But merely asking if Obama has done enough for us to expect he’d be a good president misses the point, because that measures the past rather than imagining the future.
Yet if Obama charms us by pointing to tomorrow, he doesn’t come bearing a new ideological vision. In the 1980 primaries, the insurgent Ronald Reagan won on his robust, pro-military, anti-government conservatism, a philosophy that until then had languished even within the GOP. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton triumphed because he was the first Democrat since the 1960s to formulate a viable and vital new liberalism — one rooted in years of policy wonkery, a frank reckoning with his party’s failures and an early recognition of the importance of globalization.
But where Clinton converted voters to his philosophy with binder-thick proposals, from AmeriCorps to welfare reform to the earned-income tax credit, Obama fans rarely tout his specific ideas. No one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton‘s. On the contrary, Obama’s ideology, insofar as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party‘s working-class base than to upscale professionals.
The Obama phenomenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who he is. As the social critic John McWhorter has written, “What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land.” He is the great white hope.
None of the candidates has discussed race much this year. Even John Edwards‘s focus on poverty primarily stresses class, not race. But silences can reveal as much as words.
When Sen. Joe Lieberman accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 2000, he exulted, “Only in America,” and he celebrated his Jewishness in his opening spiel. But the first words of Obama’s victory speech in bone-white Iowa — “You know, they said this day would never come” — alluded to race only through deft indirection. The national unity he went on to outline was, superficially, a harmony between red and blue states, with the much more elusive and important reconciliation between white and black America left tacit. Not until his closing did Obama acknowledge the speech’s subtext with a remark about lunch counters and fire hoses, Selma and Montgomery, and “a father from Kenya.” Throughout, his voice and cadences suggested that he had studied Martin Luther King Jr.‘s register and rhythms, the better to subtly evoke liberalism’s great lost moment of revolutionary achievement and unfulfilled promise.
Obama’s rhetorical gifts clearly contribute to his allure. But that allure resides not simply in the mellow timbre of his larynx but, more deeply, in his near-perfect pitch in talking about race to white America. Obama doesn’t shun race altogether — if he did, he would provoke suspicions — and he certainly doesn’t “transcend” race, whatever that means. But neither, as the social theorist Shelby Steele has written, does he rub white America’s face in its corrupt history of slavery and segregation. Traditionally, whites have appreciated such gentleness.
History provides a precedent of sorts: In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a dashing, almost aristocratic figure who defied many nasty stereotypes of Irish Catholics, made Protestants feel not just safe in voting for him but downright virtuous. They could flatter themselves that they were not prejudiced while still choosing a candidate as cultivated as any Brahmin. Similarly, Obama — whose strongest appeal has thus far been to upscale white liberals — allows those whites to feel good about themselves and their country. He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever.
At the same time, Obama doesn’t threaten or discomfort whites. He doesn’t strike them as wronged or impatient, or as the spokesman of a long-subjugated minority group or even as someone particularly culturally different from themselves. As much Kansan as Kenyan, Obama does not descend from families who suffered American slavery or Jim Crow. His family tree has fewer slaves than slaveholders, fewer chains than Cheneys.
This background may be what some people (mainly blacks) have meant when they asked the regrettable question of whether Obama is “black enough” to earn their votes. But Obama has always been black enough for his elite white enthusiasts, who would never presume to judge an African American’s racial authenticity — indeed, are all too happy to have such a question be kept, by prevailing norms, off limits to them.
None of this is to minimize the barriers that Obama has faced and still faces because of his race. (It’s possible that the so-called Bradley effect — the inclination of some voters to support a black candidate in talking to pollsters or in public caucuses but not in private voting booths — artificially boosted his pre-primary New Hampshire poll numbers. But as the pollster Lee Miringoff notes, those surveys actually predicted Obama’s final numbers correctly while underestimating Clinton’s, suggesting that late deciders gave her the win.) And racism is a far fiercer demon in America than anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish prejudice. Nor is this analysis of what stirs his enthusiasts meant to deny that an Obama presidency would be a watershed. But neither would the election of Obama be quite the same thing as the election of Jesse Jackson or Shirley Chisholm.
Ultimately, it is a fantasy of easy redemption. America’s racial history — mixed into our culture at its foundation — will be with us always, even as personal prejudice recedes and inequality is chipped away. For all we know, a President Obama might make the so-called underclass his top priority. But Obamamania — the phenomenon, not the man — leads us to believe that if only we vote for an African American, an avatar of “change” and healing, we can slough off the burdens of our past — the burdens of finding answers to problems such as the rising number of out-of-wedlock births, the obscene size of the black male population behind bars, the rotten state of city schools, the simmering white resentment about affirmative action, the black-white gap in life expectancy and the cascade of government failures that turned Hurricane Katrina from a breakdown of emergency relief into a disgraceful racial scandal.
Obama’s boosters are not fired up about finally confronting those intricate and intractable problems, for which the answers lie not in identity but in politics and policy. Inspiring and exhilarating as it is, Obamamania allows us to sidestep the hardest challenges, at least for now.
David Greenberg is a historian at Rutgers University. He is at work on a history of spin in American politics.