Saturday, February 10, 2007

Barack Obama and the E-word

Americans are nothing if not creatures of habit. From the choices we make in everything from our personal associations to our politics, we're reluctant to get beyond the comfort zone we keep in the back of our minds, the safe harbors of past experience that keeps us from looking anywhere else for anything else. It's maybe nowhere more obvious than in how we react to the national reflex on race matters.

In earlier, frankly quixotic campaigns for the presidency -- Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes -- that reflex was always addressed (mostly by journalists) in that tireless but tiresome question, "Is America ready for a black president?" -- a question that says as much about the timid souls who ask it as it does about the object of their curiosity.

A new report from the Pew Research Center suggest that Americans may be tiring of exercising this reflex. In the face of a nation whose demographic profile is changing ... well, in pretty much the time it takes to read these words, Pew researchers say that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has perhaps the best chance of being the beneficiary of the single, powerful dynamic in American life: a willingness of the broad body politic to break with the bitter, cynical, racialist habits of the past.

Scott Keeler and Nilanthi Samaranayake, the Pew researchers, say that Obama's solid early showing in the early polls for the 2008 race points to "two significant shifts" on the idea of the political viability of an African American president.

"The first is that an ever larger majority of the public indeed says that they are willing to vote for an African American for the nation's highest office. The second is that polls conducted in campaigns pitting white and black candidates against each other are doing a better job of accurately predicting the outcome of the election now than in the past, suggesting that hidden biases that confounded polling in biracial elections in the 1980s and early 1990s are no longer a serious problem."

Obama's campaign, the researchers find, is no lightning-in-a-thimble effort, the kind of thing that led a surprised Time magazine, in 1988, to put on its cover Jesse Jackson, who'd just won the Michigan primary with carfare for organizational money, behind the words of his name punctuated with exclamation and question marks. "[R]ecent national polling finds that, although he trails Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he does nearly as well as Clinton in general election matchups against the frontrunning Republicans, narrowly leading John McCain and running roughly even with Rudy Giuliani."

Drilling down, the Pew report found that kernel of a willingness to embrace a new idea. "More generally, the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters that they are willing to vote for a qualified African American candidate for president."

"The experience of the 2006 elections indicates that racism may be less of a factor in public judgments about African American candidates than it was 10 or 20 years ago," Pew says.

"[T]his review of exit polls and electoral outcomes in several recent elections suggests that fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race itself, and that relatively few people are now unwilling to tell pollsters how they honestly feel about particular candidates. In such an environment, the high standing of Barack Obama in presidential polling -- or, for that matter, of Colin Powell prior to the 1996 presidential election -- represents a significant change in American politics."

Don't everybody jump up singing "Kum Ba Yah" just yet. In all fairness, this shift in American attitudes about race and authority has been underway for years. With Powell and Condoleezza Rice as serial secretaries of state; numerous mayors and congressmen and women in power throughout the country; and as of last November, the choice of Deval Patrick as the first elected black governor of Massachusetts, the ground's been well laid for the acceptance of black Americans in positions of true leverage.



The presidency, though, is a different matter entirely. For many of those same presumably egalitarian Americans, the question about Obama is, can this hothouse flower of the moment stand the chill of traveling in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the chilly reception he's likely to receive as he works his way south? Will his platform stand the test of time? For that matter, has he got a platform at all? Do I like him? Do I trust him?

In any number of ways, these come down to being applications of the E-word -- electability, that ineffable quality that, in his case, isn't a matter of "would you let your daughter marry one?" as much as "Would you let your son [or daughter] go to war on his say-so?"

The hard sell for Barack Obama will be in countering the corrosive effects of the E-word, a word that, rightly or wrongly, has given the more closed-minded people who skulk among us the license to invoke race without actually doing it.

There were naysayers who held youth and relative inexperience against John F. Kennedy, none of which stopped him from becoming President of the United States at the age of forty-three, very close to the age Obama is today. And while it’s true that America loves a war hero – which Jack Kennedy apparently was, in the classic American way – the arc of contemporary global politics today has made Obama another kind of war hero: one with the stones to stand up and say going to war is not always a good idea.

Whether people say it or not, whether they tell Pew researchers or not, race plays its shadowy, insidious role in our every interaction, real or imagined. It speaks volumes that Barack Obama has advanced this far having performed his own American brand of levitation, rising (for now, anyway) above the reflex reactions of race.

And at his coming-out party, on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln got his start, Barack Obama formally threw his hat in the ring earlier today, announcing his candidacy with an address that aimed for the centerfield fence, a speech that hit the higher themes of Kennedy-era oratory.

It was a laundry list of possibles Obama spoke of: better schools, full implementation of ethics reform on Capitol Hill, environmental sensitivities, universal health care, improvements in fighting the war on terrorism, building a resurgent image of America around the world, ending American participation in the war in Iraq.

“We’ve done this before,” Obama said. “It is time for our generation to answer that call.”

The senator from Illinois spoke of the thing that need changing: “the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics, the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America.”

“It’s time to turn the page, right here and right now.”

Whether you thought it was a ground-rule double or a blast safely parked on the apartment roof outside the stadium, Obama’s address to the burghers of Springfield, his own state of the union speech, was the kind of political oratory we’ve had precious little of for the past six years. If Pew is right -- if the American wind’s just right – shit, who knows? Maybe the kid fresh out of the farm club has the Roy Hobbs-at-the-plate attitude we need to turn this thing around.

Maybe the country’s ready -- finally -- to believe in the unbelievable.

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