Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The walking America

Toward the end of his inaugural address, President Obama said, "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed....why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

This is one of the only times I have ever heard Obama even allude to his race. Throughout the entire campaign, he remained remarkably silent on the subject. The only time his race was mentioned at either of the conventions was in one gracious line by Mike Huckabee at the Republican Convention. If you think that's easy, contrast it with how often Joe Lieberman referred to his Jewishness during the 2000 campaign. For example, Lieberman's acceptance speech contained the line, "I cannot express with words the gratitude that I feel in my heart today as the first Jewish-American to be honored to be a major party candidate for the Vice Presidency." Find me one moment where Obama talks about feeling honored as an African American. He not only rarely brings up the subject, but when he does, it is usually indirect, as in his quip last summer about not looking like the men on the coins.

That's why I'm astounded whenever I hear people say his candidacy was entirely about race. How did that perception come about? Well, for starters, his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father that first brought him to public attention is largely about the struggles of a biracial man to find his identity in a racially polarized world. Another reason is that his "race speech" in the wake of the Rev. Wright controversy became perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire campaign.

More significantly, though, the pundits couldn't shut up about the subject. And no matter what Obama did, there was undeniably a symbolic aura surrounding his candidacy. People were intrigued by him, who he was, and not just what he said. They found his life story, while not as heroic as John McCain's, equally fascinating.

His mantra of "change" resonated in different ways, because on one level it highlighted a substantive program to reverse the destructive policies of the Bush Administration, but on another it was a call to remake the image of the American government before the entire world. Outside the United States, Bush has always evoked the worst stereotypes of Americans--the country bumpkin, the frat-boy, the privileged son of rich whites, the member of an elite class with a callous disregard for the plight of the weak. (If any of those stereotypes seem to conflict with one another, that is partly a reflection of Bush's image-making, which cast this Ivy Leaguer as a rural American.) It may not be fair, but Obama overturns those stereotypes all at once, simply because of who he is: a walking America.

Before Obama appeared on the national stage, anyone would have predicted that the first black president would have a name like Harold Williams, or even George Washington. Obama isn't just the first black president, he's the first president with a funny name. His biological father was Kenyan, but he was raised partly in Indonesia by an Asian man, and the rest of the time on American soil by whites. I don't mean to imply that his background is unusual. On the contrary, it speaks to the greatness of America in a way that the office of the presidency has tended to conceal.

Even though he doesn't talk about his own race very often, one of his central messages has always been bringing people of different backgrounds together. That was much the thrust of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention ("There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America"), which propelled him to national attention and convinced many people, including yours truly, that he was potential presidential material.

It isn't just rhetoric; he seems to have accomplished some of this goal in the diverse coalition he built. He didn't just attract a higher percentage of blacks than usual, he also received a larger proportion of the white vote than any Democrat since Carter. He also won every region of the country except the South, and even there, he won three of the eleven states from the Old Confederacy: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. A black candidate could have won the presidency with a narrower band of support.

That America would eventually elect a black man as president was probably inevitable; that it would be someone like Obama is unexpected. He didn't just win, he smoothed out a range of demographics that most people considered to be deep, insuperable divisions. In this scheme, he doesn't need to talk about his racial identity because it so clearly informs how he has approached the task of trying to unite America.

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