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The Squandering of Obama

Political masterminds have transformed the candidate from a political visionary into an electoral product like every other presidential aspirant.
 
 
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I have known Barack Obama since the early '90s. My various conversations with him had convinced me he was an indelible progressive. I celebrated his entry into politics with his first election to the state senate from Illinois' 13th District, and he compiled a strikingly progressive legislative record during his seven-year stint.

Conditions conspired perfectly to grease Obama's route into the U.S. Senate and then into the presidential race. Those of us following the "Obama phenomenon" from its inception were amazed by the magical, dreamlike quality of his ascent. A local astrologer explained it by noting a propitious celestial alignment in Obama's chart.

Perhaps astrology could best explain his meteoric rise. After all, what rational pundit would have predicted that a black candidate with a name like Barack Hussein Obama would become a U.S. senator and a legitimate presidential candidate during a war with Islamic terrorism?

The dream continues with Obama as a frontrunner in the Democratic primary race. Somehow, though, the magic has gone missing. The cut-and-parse, political calibrations employed by Obama's campaign staff have devalued enchantment and put a premium on marketing. His political masterminds have transformed Obama from a political visionary into an electoral product (with demographically designed components) just like every other presidential aspirant. His handlers have excised the very quality that distinguished Obama from the usual suspects.

No one in this well-populated brood of presidential candidates has yet said much about the incarceration crisis in black America, or the large black unemployment rate, or the chronically low quality of education in city schools, or anything else relating to the specific needs of the African-American electorate. That is no surprise for the GOP's gang of 11. It is surprising, however, that Democrats have been similarly reticent, since black voters are the party's largest and most faithful electoral bloc.

This avoidance is deliberate. Party strategists apparently believe American voters are less likely to choose Democratic candidates if they perceive them under the sway of the party's most loyal constituents. For example, candidate Bill Clinton's criticism of Sister Souljah's inflammatory comments in 1992 about the Los Angeles riots (now referred to as Clinton's "Souljah Moment") is often credited with helping him win the votes of many "Reagan Democrats." He demonstrated a willingness to put blacks in their place.

Sophisticated African-American voters are expected to tolerate this perverse electoral tendency and squash their specific gripes for the good of the progressive whole. Obama's progressive supporters often utilize this argument to push back black demands for specific campaign attention.

Many of us familiar with Obama hoped he would help put an end to the Democrats' racial schizophrenia. Knowing him as a strong advocate of racial pride, with a deep knowledge of African-Americans' liberation struggle, we thought Obama was perfectly cast as the candidate who could bring needed perspective to our racial dilemma. Our past conversations led me to believe he would seek that role as well.

Perhaps he came to believe that political success was incompatible with efforts to promote a serious racial reckoning. He may have wanted to ride the Obama magic all the way to a progressive revolution, but was reined in by more seasoned political hands. You can almost hear their hypothetical arguments: "Personal magic and charisma will take you only so far. The rest of the trip requires astute political calculations."

Political calculations must be the reason Obama is playing the "Bill Cosby card" (that is, focusing on individual behavior as the primary cause of racial disparity) in his latest speeches. He knows better than that. After all, Obama wrote the foreward to the National Urban League's distressing 2007 report "The State of Black America: Portrait of the Black Male," which indicts institutional racism as the major culprit.

With his knowledge of context and his unique access to the public square, many wonder why Obama is focusing on issues that reinforce white Americans' denial of slavery's legacy. Some commentators point to that very focus as the reason for his popularity. Paul Street, for example, writes in the June 20 edition of the webzine, blackagendareport.com, "Obama allows whites to assuage their racial guilt and feel non-racist by liking and perhaps even voting for him while signaling that he won't do anything to tackle and redress the steep racial disparities and systematic racial oppression."

Street has been a consistent critic of the Obama phenomenon, but many of us who know the candidate begged to differ. We argued he was a true progressive who would use his extraordinary time in the limelight to speak unpopular truths about U.S. foreign and domestic policy while unflinchingly reminding the nation of its racial obligations.

That prospect was the magic ingredient in Obama mania. His strategists are busy squandering it.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times , where he has worked since 1983, and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.