PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM
I thought Global Affairs readers might find the following of interest.
I wrote this for the Bangkok Post which just ran an editorial today expressing fears about possible US action in Iran, a serious topic expertly addressed in a guest editorial on Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog.
My piece is not strictly about global affairs but I hope it does raise some questions about a presidential race that seems to be about everything and anything but global affairs.
Why be President when you can be King?
By Philip J. Cunningham
With the rapid and unexpected ascent of Barack Obama one gets the sense in America that a national turning point is at hand, an opportunity for reconciliation and transformation, though the success of this bold project is far from assured. The transformative moment, such as it is, coexists with the deeply treacherous politics of fear, --a strike on Iran cannot yet be counted out in the lame duck days of the Bush/Cheney imperial presidency, thrusting the US onto a war footing that might very well make the otherwise charmless John McCain electable.
Given broad public discontent with Bush Jr. and the war in Iraq, the Democratic Party should own the election, but it now risks self-destruction as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama camps vie to push one another off the high road with unfriendly nudges and low innuendoes.
The American electorate may verily be ready and hungry for change, but a truly transformative shift of the kind superficially symbolized by putting the first woman or the first black in the White House is not a sure thing even if one of them should win the general election.
Hillary Clinton is the better known of the two candidates, having been in the fishbowl of Washington politics considerably longer. Her strengths and weaknesses are well documented but it remains an open question whether the symbolic positives of having a woman occupy the highest office begins to compensate for her known negatives as an opportunistic politician.
What you see is may be what you get with Hillary, but not so with Barack Obama who remains something of a cipher. Not only has he had only limited exposure on the national stage but also he has successfully cultivated a fuzzy public persona conveniently loaded with ambiguity.
This works for him and against him, he can be seen as healer and fence-sitter, a bridge and a brick in the wall. His identity is cast as being rooted in the African-American community, but he is a Johnny-come-lately to that community, and could have, had he chosen to do so, emphasized the strong Asian and Caucasian influences of his childhood. When Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Obama’s success was in part due to his blackness, she was making a fair observation.
Obama is indeed popular with whites, not because of his political record or his “whiteness” but because of what he’s come to symbolize. He’s that rare black American reaching out to whites, offering absolution in a way that no white man can.
Of course this is only one of many factors, he is popular with whites for many of the same the reasons he is popular with blacks; he is good-looking, articulate, knowledgeable, politically mature and gentlemanly in demeanor.
But when it comes to identity politics, Obama appeals to blacks and whites for strikingly different and difficult to reconcile reasons. To the former he is a “brother,” to the latter he is an emissary from the ‘hood offering the olive branch of racial reconciliation, which despite, or perhaps precisely because of the largely one-sided history of racial oppression, comes as a welcome relief to many guilt-challenged whites.
Thus Obama’s regular attendance at a neighborhood church espousing black liberation theology is not necessarily a negative with whites, his identification with people and places the average white American cannot connect with is unwittingly part of what makes him popular to whites, despite the off-putting rhetoric espoused of Reverend Wright, because it locates him close to the beating heart of the “real” black community. He is not a race-blind Clarence Thomas or Condoleezza Rice. He wants to and needs to speak for the street, and if he does so with his healing words, then a true thaw in racial tensions might be around the corner.
For a boy raised by a white mother, two white grandparents and an Indonesian stepfather, his ability to in some sense represent black America is actually quite remarkable. Obama has integrated himself into both black America and white America, poised to emerge as a rare all-American leader.
Exploiting a personal journey in search of identity and a complex family mix for political gain is not without a downside. At times Obama treads a line so fine that it gets outright awkward if not coldly calculating; witness the way he talks of “typical whites” and ignores the most dysfunctional side of the black community or the way he equates the white mother of his white mother with a controversial white-bashing preacher.
Obama is the rare politician who can write well, witness the poignant musings on the mulatto’s search for identity, especially the absent African father so central to his books.
The journey is a fascinating one, beautifully told, but it also makes it plain that he has thought longer and harder about race, than foreign policy issues or economics, so his electability really comes down to what Americans look for in a President.
In recent years, the Presidency has become a winner-takes-all overly exalted position that calls for someone part monarch, part martinet, part guy-next-door, part Hollywood star. Expecting one extraordinary individual to be savior and solver of all problems is corrosive to the spirit of democracy; the danger of unrealistic and misplaced hopes can be seen in the unitary presidency of George W. Bush. Armed with the right to make war, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has assumed unprecedented power, armed with world-shaking prerogatives that would be the envy of many an authoritarian strongman.
Is that the direction Obama wants to go? His appeal to date is his moral clarity, thanks to his youth, inexperience and ambiguous take on tough issues; he hasn’t had to make the cold Machiavellian compromises and brutal power plays that we come to expect from the commander-in-chief.
Hillary Clinton likes to say she is more electable and in a way she is right, we expect less of her and are less surprised when she acts like a politician. She will do what it takes.
In contrast her charismatic rival projects an untainted moral authority, allowing him to cast an all-encompassing net of hope that embraces opposites. Not just white America and black America, but rich and poor, winner and loser alike.
On a good day Obama sounds a lot like Martin Luther King.
But it does not necessarily follow that Obama would be a good president or that being president would be good for the reconciliation agenda that so profoundly excites the public. King was a great man, but would he have been a good president?