Can Barack Obama Become President?
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The man with an increasingly good chance of becoming America's first black president officially announced his candidacy on a cold Springfield morning just as newly deceased Anna Nicole Smith and newly shorn Brittney Spears inflicted serious competition for TV viewers.
Nevertheless Barack Obama, the 45-year-old son of Kenya and Kansas, has penetrated the media's foggy obsession with tabloid stars and has become, in short order, a celebrity himself. He has jump-started interest in the presidential race and zinged from something like 12 percent name recognition to being a close second for the Democratic nomination. With the campaign's starting gun only just fired, Obama is already perceived as a powerful threat to Hillary Clinton's well-funded political juggernaut and John Edwards' carefully planned strategies, and has emerged as the presumptive speaker for the conscience of the country in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes.
Many are excited just to be passionate again about a presidential campaign, even if it turns out be the classic brief dance of an underdog. But with lightning swiftness, an Obama nomination seems tantalizingly possible. Even sitting presidents can't always raise the $1.3 million taken in by the Obama campaign during a single fundraising event in Los Angeles on Feb. 20 sponsored by Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeff Katzenberg and David Geffen.
The field reports on Obama are also impressive: He recently addressed the largest ever pre-presidential-primary crowds in New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio and Texas and has been endorsed by Iowa's attorney general and state treasurer -- pragmatic characters practiced at backing obvious winners in their state. The Iowa caucuses early next year will be among the nation's first electoral tests of presidential candidates. Inside the offices of MoveOn.org, there is agreement that Obama is far and away the favorite among its members and has been for the past six months. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has endorsed him, saying that Obama "personifies the future of Democratic leadership."
What do we know about this first-term U.S. senator who wants to be our president? The Obama resume is formidable: Harvard Law School graduate and president of the Harvard Law Review , civil rights lawyer, constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, author of two best-selling books, grass-roots organizer and Illinois senator for eight years, where his style has been described as methodical, inclusive and pragmatic. Factors such as his stalwart opposition to the Iraq war, a growing appreciation for his self-effacing charm and crossover appeal, and Americans' desire for fresh and future-focused leadership all seem to bode well for Obama's continuing momentum.
Race in the race
So now that Obama has burst on the scene as a real contender, the question becomes: Is America ready to elect a black man to its presidency?
For sure an Obama nomination would be a powerful update on the black condition in America and signal wide acceptance of the enormous diversity of its population. Yet, on the other hand there are pockets of resistance and reluctance in the African-American community to get on the Obama bandwagon. Some question Obama being the product of a mixed marriage -- his mother is white, his father from Kenya. Obama's origins were not the slave experience shared by many African-Americans, especially its senior political class. But that may not have as much impact in the rank and file, and among younger African-Americans.
Meanwhile Bill Clinton has been by far the most popular president among black voters, and Hillary Clinton has her share of their support. The initial reluctance among black voters should have been no surprise -- the Clintons have earned their close friendship with African-Americans. But as the viability of Obama's run becomes more apparent, a dramatic growth of his support in black America is to be expected.
Surely Obama's ideas and positions will play well in black communities: universal healthcare, technological improvements for poor and rural communities, reform for the political system, energy independence and ending the war in Iraq. The fact that racial minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan is not lost on people of color in this country.
For many, Sen. Obama represents a modern and positive image of blackness. He is a worldly, well-educated man married to a well-educated professional black woman. Another way that the race issue may ultimately work in Obama's favor is that it helps force those who are loudly critical to base their stand on his record and positions and steer clear of personal attacks that could be construed as racist.
But what about the election? The voting booth provides ample coverage for secret racists. Yet a newly announced Gallup poll found that 94 percent of Americans would vote for their party's African-American nominee for president before their party's woman nominee. And it's safe to assume that the same people who would reject Obama on the basis of his skin color would probably reject his progressive views even if he were white.
The votes he may "lose" due to race alone are votes he would not have had anyway. With his early and impressive following among young people, some experts are predicting an unprecedented increase of eligible young voters coming to the polls to support Obama in 2008.
Other well-known figures have paved the way for Obama's run. The first black woman to be elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, ran for president in 1972 and established the importance of the black vote. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson was taken seriously as a possible presidential candidate and won more states in the 1988 primaries than anyone thought possible. Throughout the 1990s former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was riding a wave of success after the first Gulf War, was widely lauded as presidential material. Had he run in 1996, he may well have won. As with Obama, his racially mixed background was seen as a plus. Finally, in 2004 both Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton ran full-blown campaigns for president.
It is unlikely that there will be a moment during the nomination process when everyone suddenly decides that the time is right for a black president. If history is any guide, these cultural shifts take on a life of their own, and only after the fact does everyone agrees it was time.
The experience paradox
In 2008, given the disastrous state of political affairs in America and its standing in the world community, the candidates with the most Washington experience appear to be headed for trouble in some popularity surveys. Polling consistently shows that many Americans want a fresh approach, a leader who is not representative of the system that has brought us to the crisis point. "Most voters want something new," says Democratic consultant Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000. "They want less D.C. experience and more good values."
Nevertheless, Obama does have significant experience under his belt -- eight years in the Illinois state Senate and a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his first two years in the Senate. Senator Obama has been notably productive in Washington -- he's the primary sponsor of 152 bills and resolutions, including three Senate resolutions, and 14 bills that he co-sponsored have become law. He introduced the Spent Nuclear Fuel Tracking and Accountability Act, which works to deter nuclear proliferation; the Drinking Water Security Act of 2005, which reduces pollutants in our water; and the Lane Evans Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act of 2006, which secures health benefits for our veterans.
Obama's perspective on the topic of experience is instructive: "Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have an awful lot of experience, yet they have engineered what I think is one of the biggest foreign policy failures in our recent history. So I would say the most important things are judgment and vision ... and passion for the American people and what their hopes and dreams are." He is on record as believing that given a certain necessary level of experience, sound judgment is always more important than time on the job.
Can Hillary hold on?
Many Democrats agree that their '08 candidate should be a unifier, someone who can give voice to the issues Americans agree on and reach across independents and some Republicans for votes. Hillary Clinton, despite her high name recognition, acumen for raising money, political markers transferred from Bill and popularity among the Democratic elite, will have to prove that she is not the polarizing figure that many of rank-and-file Democrats worry about. Intelligent and articulate, she nevertheless lacks the ability to connect with people that made Bill so magnetic. To quote Bill Mahar, "She's the wrong Clinton."
Others fear that once Hillary is a candidate, Republicans will relentlessly dredge up vivid reminders of the more tawdry aspects of the Clinton presidency: the Monica Lewinsky revelations, Jennifer Flowers and the impeachment attempt. Many Americans were sympathetic to Hillary throughout that drama, but it is a fair guess that voters do not want to be reminded of it daily.
There is also a long history of Hillary being the prime target of reactionary talk show hosts throughout the American South and West, who railed on nightly about Hillary and invited listeners to call in and join in the demonization of the first lady when Bill was president. The right-wing conspiracy that Hillary decried did in fact exist, and she was their target. Although attacks on Hillary were essentially groundless, almost half of the American electorate go into this election season with a negative perception of Hillary Clinton.
Finally, Hillary's refusal to "admit she made a mistake" when voting on the Iraq war is regarded by many as a strategic blunder and stands in contrast to Obama's clarity about the need to end the occupation of Iraq quickly.
Obama on record
"I think one of the things about national politics that is so exhausting is this attempt to airbrush your life," Sen. Obama has said. "This is who I am, and this is where I've come from." Some critics have called Obama the Rorschach candidate, loved not so much for his positions but for his appealing persona. The instant rock-star status he enjoys, and the media frenzy he generates, have the downside of creating the impression that he is heavy on charm and light on ideas. Yet in his new book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama spells out his platform in detail. His stands on the most complex and divisive issues of the day, from gay marriage to the Middle East to the death penalty, are fully explained in 384 well-written pages that the average reader can comprehend.
The book also recounts Obama's position on the Iraq war. In 2002, he strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq because he felt it was an ill-conceived venture that would "require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undermined cost with undetermined consequences." He warned that an invasion without strong international support could "drain our military, distract us from the war with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and further destabilize the Middle East." Currently, Obama takes issue with those who feel the problem was one of strategy or implementation: "I have long believed it has also been a failure of conception, and that the rationale behind the war itself was misguided." In January 2007, Sen. Obama introduced legislation that would commence redeployment of troops no later than May 1 of the same year.
But with friends like democrats...
Universal healthcare, energy independence, action on global warming, more affordable education and a phased withdrawal from Iraq all will have a clear appeal to progressives. But one should never underestimate the ability of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
A sizable percentage of the progressive sector may not be happy with any candidate who does not agree with them on every issue. They have already shown a surprising lack of concern for the political and practical consequences of their inflexibility. The following that Dennis Kucinich, and Ralph Nader enjoyed are cases in point. Intractable liberal voters are like window shoppers who feel most comfortable going home empty-handed and later whining that they couldn't find something they liked. They may have been as responsible for reelecting Bush as his hard-core conservative base.
Has America under George W. Bush dropped into an abyss of moral and economic bankruptcy? Sadly, this is what our nation now represents to the rest of the world. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of an Obama presidency would be the message it sends globally: The post-Bush era of American governance has arrived.
If candidate Obama's challenges are daunting, his overcoming those challenges would be all the more significant for many around the globe. An Obama presidency could vault him and all of us into a new era, where sane and compassionate policies are championed by a more united and rational citizenry. Still, world popularity doesn't elect U.S. presidents. Will Americans be driven primarily by their fear or their hope? The possibility of a new president named Barack Hussein Obama hangs in the balance.
Allan Hunt Badiner is a writer, activist and editor of three books: "Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology," "Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics" and "Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism."