The Radical Face of Obama
A Fateful Election
Panning across the faces of the country's leaders gathered in the Cabinet Room to confront the "financial crisis" in late September, the camera's eye moves from the President-looking tired, shrunken, desiccated-to his Treasury secretary and other powerful advisers, and then slowly makes its way down and around the long Cabinet table, trailing over the familiar waxen features of the barons of the Senate and the House, lingering for a moment on the self-consciously resolute face of the white-haired Senator John McCain, and finally reaches the table's end where it settles at last on the figure of a lean, solitary black man slumped in his seat. He seems relaxed, composed, self-contained-and strikingly, powerfully isolated. In how many such rooms holding how many such powerful people in the recent and distant past has his been the only black face?
The radicalism of Barack Obama lies not in his policies but in his face. It is a radicalism not just of color but of emergence, for scarcely a year ago that face was utterly unknown to the overwhelming majority of Americans. Not since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has a major party put forward as nominee a candidate so little known to the country. Just as the obscure one-term governor from Georgia owed his victory to the intertwined disasters of Vietnam and Watergate and the profound crisis of legitimacy they brought in train, so Obama as national political phenomenon was born of the Iraq War, the War on Terror, and the failed economic radicalism of the present administration.
Obama has arisen out of a plain of scorched earth, a longed-for rebirth at the logical limit of an exhausted politics. Seven years after September 11 the "wartime president" has brought his War on Terror to a dead end in the bloody stalemate in Iraq, where American dollars now fund both the Iranian-allied Shiite government and the former Baathist insurgents, and on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where $10 billion of US aid now buys the bullets that Pakistani soldiers fire at US special forces hunting a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda. At home the President turned huge surpluses into vast deficits, more than doubling the national debt, and pushed the deregulatory zeal of the Reagan administration into a frightening near-collapse of the entire financial system.
This astonishing record has made the only president brought to power by the Supreme Court the most unpopular since modern polling began, leading more than eight Americans in ten to conclude that the country is "on the wrong track" and millions to change their party identification from Republican to Democrat.
Obama's miraculous rise is inexplicable without that shrunken pale figure in the Cabinet Room, whose waning shadow still looms over this election. Though Obama evokes the theme of a new bipartisanship with great eloquence and power, he promises the bounties of a traditional Democrat: a middle-class tax cut, health care for nearly everyone, investments in roads and bridges, money for early childhood education and job training. Behind the eloquently intoned mantra of a new politics of hope lies a movement fueled by a deep-seated sense of rebellion-against "politics as usual," against "experience" as a political value (and the older generation that holds it as such), against "Washington" and all the evils that that word evokes. His populism is brilliantly engineered and inspiring in its eloquence-and, for all that, in its essence deeply familiar.
And yet there is the radicalism of that face. It supplies the obvious answer to the obvious conundrum of this election: Why, given "the fundamentals"-the historic unpopularity of the incumbent party and the tottering economy, which should make certain an opposition landslide-is the contest so close? What differs here, and differs profoundly, is the unspoken centrality of race, the ancient sinful fulcrum of American politics. As Lyndon Johnson foresaw, the Democrats' belated championing of the civil rights revolution of the mid-1960s, in moving the "solid South" from Democrat to Republican hands, enabled the Republicans to dominate the White House for two generations. After 1968, Republicans won seven in ten presidential elections. (Before it, Democrats had won seven of ten.)
It is no accident that the largest single polling disparity between McCain and Obama voters, apart from race itself, is age. Obama's candidacy is in large part a rebellion of the young, for whom race has much less saliency, and one of the great indeterminacies of the election is how many young people will turn out to vote. Another is whether the increase in those who will vote for Obama in part because of his race-most notably, African-Americans, who are registering in large numbers-will offset or exceed those who will vote against him in part for the same reason. This immensely complex question, which goes far beyond the debate over the so-called "Bradley Effect" (the disparity between what voters tell pollsters and what they actually do in the voting booth), turns at its heart on whether race can be used effectively as a kind of "ignition switch" to make of Obama, for a critical subset of voters in a handful of critical states, a figure too culturally "different" and "foreign" and "elite" to seem in the end a plausible leader.
The potential is certainly there, for one sees persistent signs of it in everyday life. "I could never vote for Obama"-I've heard variations of this line a great many times over the last few weeks, most recently from a waiter who noticed me paging through the newspaper's political coverage. "I could never vote for a Muslim," he went on, smiling apologetically; and what struck me about the ensuing exchange was my inability to convince this man, whom I've known for years, that Obama is Christian-"He only converted when he was twelve," he insisted-or that he hadn't "changed his position, on everything, almost every day." Whether or not such disinformation is planted or actively encouraged, and however much its persistence might owe to race, it is clear that it flows like a subterranean stream through much of the country and the extent and depth of that stream are impossible to quantify.
What is not in doubt is that this substratum of concern or discomfort about race, and complementary worries about Obama as a foreigner or outsider for whom a vote would thus become a perilous gamble, have provided a prime target for Republican political and media operatives. Their delicate task in the weeks ahead will be to blend race with more traditional Republican "hot-button" "culture war" themes-worries about patriotism, elitism, sex education, abortion, gay marriage-and construct out of this mix a series of potent images and symbols intended to peel off from the Democratic coalition so-called "Reagan Democrats," conservative, often "ethnic" urban and suburban working- and middle-class voters.
Voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado and a handful of other states will likely hear much about Reverend Wright and his call to "God Damn America!" and about Senator Obama's supposed support for "teaching kindergartners about sex before we teach them to read." These thirty-second pieces of political art, whether produced by the McCain campaign itself, the Republican National Committee, or "independent" groups, will be aimed at a subset of the 12 percent or so of voters who remain undecided, and are intended to lower the numbers of those who say they look positively on Obama and "identify" with his "values and background"-numbers that, as I write, have been declining even as the candidate's national numbers are rising.
That such ads will be denounced as distortions and lies will not necessarily blunt their effectiveness, for they are directed at a narrow audience that tends to distrust or ignore the "mainstream media." They work, when they do work, according to a logic of powerful symbols and images which tend to overwhelm facts, particularly when those facts come from a world of reporters and commentators viewed as inherently biased and "elite." And they are directed at an audience-the so-called "beer-drinking" or "lunch-pail" Democrats-which, having largely favored Hillary Clinton in the primaries, especially in the critical old industrial states of the Midwest that Obama lost, may be more than usually receptive to their appeal.
Whether or not John McCain's campaign will be able to exploit this vulnerability turns on whether, among these several million critical voters, fear of an unfamiliar African-American "elitist" can be made to overwhelm fear of an extension of Republican governance that few can now doubt has proved catastrophic for the country. Obama has hammered away on the latter theme, declaring at every opportunity that "the country cannot afford four more years of the same Bush policies"-and then the financial crisis, striking like a bolt of lightning, illuminated for all to see the ruins of the economic landscape. McCain, who has been struggling to present himself as a populist (and, implicitly, anti-Bush) "maverick" who would lead the country on a very different course, understood the danger the crisis posed for him but fumbled badly in his attempt to exploit it. Even as Republicans unleash a new onslaught designed to increase his opponent's "negatives," McCain must somehow make his "maverick" argument credible, not least by joining it to a positive economic vision for the country; only thus is he likely to persuade enough voters who are disgusted with Republican policies and deeply worried about the economy-but who still fear, or can be made to fear, a President Obama.
It is a truism that given the political "fundamentals"-the anger at Bush, the fear of hard times, the disquiet over the country's direction-the election this year should bring overwhelming Democratic victory. Perhaps, given the vast increases in voter registration and the shift in party identification, that is precisely what will happen. But we are beyond models here. It is the very unpopularity of Bush and the atmosphere of profound disillusion and crisis that helped produce a Democratic challenger whose election-however remarkable his talents, however stirring his eloquence, however bright his promise-would constitute a true revolution. That this is so stems from the unspoken shame of American politics. That that shame might finally be overcome is perhaps the most precious promise of the "politics of hope."
© 2008 The New York Review of Books