Thursday, February 07, 2008

Is Obama for real?... a question from France

A student of mine in France last year is curious about the Obama phenomenon. He writes,
I wished to ask your opinion about its (Obama's campaign) chance of success. According to the results of the big Tuesday, he may be the democrat candidate. Here in France, we think he would have only a few chances to win the election, due to his blackness. We think that some americans would be afraid to vote for a black. I apologize if it seems racist or wrong, but that's the opinion we have...

Elsewhere in his letter he says that it's hard to get good information on this subject. The results of the primaries thus far reveal a set of facts that allow one to assert the following without much fear of contradiction.
Many millions of Americans will indeed vote for a black man for President. The question of whether some Americans will not vote for a black man is no doubt true as well, but it is much harder to quantify. My gut tells me that while certain people will always vote reflexively against certain factors like race, gender, religion, etc... that ultimately it comes down to whether a candidate inspires confidence or not and whether he or she can raise enough cash to get themselves seen and heard. Amazingly, Americans have reached into their pockets and funded Obama's campaign to an unprecedented extent. As for confidence, Obama's experience or lack thereof may be his biggest liability in the minds of voters how are seriously undecided.
Another important point I would ask my student to keep in mind is that the current campaign is not for the general election but for the Democratic nomination. This should be, in an ideal world, an election where his blackness would not hold him back given the Democratic party's platform of progressive ideals, and yet, ironically, it might be easier for Obama to win a general election against a Republican than for him to defeat the entrenched and powerful establishment Democratic forces supporting Clinton. If he loses to Clinton, we will all lose the opportunity to see whether Americans are indeed willing to vote a black man into the Oval Office. Personally, I believe they would.
For two reasons I'm not surprised that Obama is a source of wonder and curiosity to young people in Europe. First, he has a powerful generational pull here in America that is very translatable overseas among the same age group. Second, he isn't George Bush.
The French public which is typically riven (as is ours) by political and social divisions has been galvanized in recent years by two American phenomena: 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq. The first led to an enormous and spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with americans. The second led to widespread vilification of Bush. Bush was in many ways French president Jacques Chirac's political salvation. Standing up to and opposing Bush, was in the eyes of many French, his one shining moment in a career otherwise marked by cynical and even corrupt dealings.
What has this to do with Obama?
Despite efforts by some, notably the Clinton campaign, to pigeon hole Obama in the traditional categories of identity politics, Obama has really energized a new political discourse that seeks to put character, competence and commitment front and center. Obama's politics do not derive from his blackness; rather, Obama embodies a new calculus which fuses categories of color and gender and religious faith and sexual orientation in ways that resonate with the way young people today experience them.
Obama is at this stage untarnished by a legacy of cynical double dealings or corruption. Skeptics claim that this is nothing more than a mirage, a function of time not yet spent in the halls of power and influence. Give him time, they say, and he'll become just like the rest of them.
I don't buy that argument. Nor do I buy the faint praise criticism that he is simply "articulate". Some people say that as if being able to speak well is commonplace among second rate thinkers. Really great speaking cannot be divorced from great ideas. Listen to his speeches and you'll hear more than polish. The man is comfortable with ideas. He has obviously thought long and hard about things. The richness of his language is derived in no small measure from the depth of his reflections. The campaign he has run is a model of discipline and enthusiasm and efficiency. The man is competent; he's a progressive with a conservative temperament; he's got skills; he's not just a brilliant orator.
I'll say it again. In a general election, Americans from every corner of this country would vote for him, but unless he can beat the Clinton apparatus, we'll never know.


Anonymous erin said...

I would like for your student to understand that for many of the young people in this country, (and of course, a lot of other people), this is the first time in 8 years that we've felt anything akin to hope for the future of the country we love. It is like having your sister or your Mother dump a drunk, abusive boyfriend for nice, gainfully employed, respectful, intelligent man who likes her kids. I, for one, am thrilled!

6:35 AM  

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