When Barack Obama, having secured the presidential nomination, ended his victory speech last week, CNN sought its first reaction from Jesse Jackson – not long ago, the standard-bearer for blacks in US politics. What did it mean for the US, Mr Jackson was asked, that the Democratic party would for the first time nominate a black man for president?
By Clive Crook
It was a jarring transition, so much so that Mr Jackson’s reply is hard to recall. One’s first thought was, what does this have to do with him? It took a moment to remember.
Race has intruded on Mr Obama’s campaign, to be sure. The raving reverend, Jeremiah Wright, threatened to sink it completely. Polls suggest that racism was a factor in Mr Obama’s defeats in West Virginia and elsewhere. In the end Mr Obama secured the nomination thanks to the overwhelming support of black Democrats. Quite possibly, race could cost him the general election in November. So yes, this election is partly about race.
Yet Mr Obama stayed true to his early promise and ran whenever he was allowed to as an exceptional candidate who just happens to be black. Contrast that with Senator Hillary Clinton, who ran (especially in her campaign’s later stages) not as a strong candidate who happens to be a woman, but as one who was entitled to win because she was a woman, and whose defeat would be an affront to women across the country. (For if Mrs Clinton were not nominated, she seemed to say, what woman ever could be?)
Mr Obama’s victory speech did not even mention that he is the first black American to win the nomination of one of the main parties. As he has all along, he spoke to and for the whole of his party, and to the whole of the US. In no meaningful sense, therefore, is he Mr Jackson’s heir. His break with that style of victim politics is total and that is what makes his nomination so important. He does not belong to the “black interest”, if there is such a thing. It was young people of all kinds and wealthy urban whites who first found him most appealing. Yet as his electability became apparent he has united black voters in their enthusiasm. If ever there were a new kind of politics, this is it.
In a way, it is a compliment to Mr Obama that the celebrations over his nomination are more muted than one would have predicted (had anyone dared to make such a prediction) a year go. Other things are no doubt influencing the mood as well. The Clintons have not gone away, so the nomination contest feels unfinished. And Mr Obama did not surge to victory – far from it.
He let his early gains carry him over the line and won by the narrowest of disputed margins; at the end, the momentum was with Mrs Clinton.
All this has subdued any sense of triumphalism. Nonetheless it is a tribute to Mr Obama, and the best outcome for racial politics in the US, that it seems natural that a black man won the nomination. Why not?
Needless to say, this will all turn to ashes if he fails to win the presidential election – and at the moment the race against Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, looks close. Both men pose insuperable problems for electoral forecasters, with less appeal than typical nominees to their parties’ respective bases and more to independent voters. Both now face the same dilemma: do they concentrate on consolidating their parties’ traditional support, or on reaching out to newcomers? If they do the former, their broad appeal as insurgents – and the prospects for a changed political climate in Washington – will diminish. If they gamble on the latter, as they have promised, they might fail and then lose. The situation is so unusual that one cannot even say, for either man, which would be the riskier approach.
Provided he can overcome the curse of the Clintons – not an easy thing – the dilemma is less acute for Mr Obama than for his rival. The Democratic nominee has no real disagreement on policy with the party’s base; his commanding personality and remarkable oratory give him a head-start with open-minded centrists. Up to a point, he can hope to build his appeal to both groups.
It will be far harder for Mr McCain to appeal both to Republican loyalists (with whom, in the past, he has disagreed on many subjects such as campaign finance reform, President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and global warming) and the independents who are buoying his standing in the polls. He is in more of a bind. This, together with the dismal foreign and domestic legacy of the current administration, makes Mr Obama favourite to win.
His greatest electoral weakness will probably not be inexperience, nor the fact that he is black. Washington’s most experienced politicians have little to boast about and voters know it. Racism exists, but he came through the Wright storm stronger. The charge that sticks is vagueness. Appealing as the message of change and hope may be to a country with a low opinion of its politicians, it will not be enough. He will be challenged to make his policies – on Iraq, on Iran, on the economy and healthcare – more detailed and specific. He will need to answer, if not with exhaustive blueprints then at least with a mastery of the issues, clearer priorities and a franker recognition of the costs and benefits than he has shown so far.
Mr Obama has come an awfully long way on being an extraordinary politician. His new challenge is to be a competent ordinary one as well.