Barack Obama’s ‘day that would never come’

On the day when Barack Obama first entered America’s consciousness I was sitting glumly in the audience. It was the summer of 2004, at the Democratic Convention in Boston.
For hours I had sat listening to politicians from around the country denounce Bush, Cheney, Iraq. I watched the delegates – suicidally – rally around John Kerry, and I watched Kerry try not to seem like the Massachusetts liberal he had always been.
Hardly surprising, then, that when this Senate candidate got up to speak, I (and several million other Americans) listened with something akin to relief. He was amusing, speaking of himself as a “skinny kid with a funny name”. He was cheerfully optimistic, talking about a “generous America” where “you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential”.
Best of all, he eschewed stereotypes. Instead of denouncing his opponents, he denounced “the pundits who like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states” (that is, Republican states and Democratic states).
In what became the most quoted lines of the convention, he went on: “We worship an awesome God in the blue statesÖand yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are all one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
To the British ear it might sound overblown, but the rhetorical combination was brilliant: Obama had taken the ringing repetitions and soaring metaphors beloved of black preachers and politicians – and mixed them with the language of the Founding Fathers and the American Dream.
Still, it was only a speech. Obama was not yet even a senator. Even if elected, he would still be the only black man in the Senate. “Hardly a likely candidate for the presidency,” the Washington press corps told itself. “What a pity.”
Cut to January 2008, and everything looks different. Two days ago, Obama made another speech, celebrating his own victory in the Iowa caucuses. His very first words addressed the old conventional wisdom: “They said this day would never come,” he declared – and his supporters cheered.
They knew, as did everyone else, that the “day that would never come” was the day that a black man became a serious candidate for president.
Here, of course, is where I should insert the appropriate caveats. To win the Iowa caucuses is not to win the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency. The rules of the Iowa vote are such that only the most politically dedicated – and atypical – of the state’s voters show up.
Iowa itself is atypical; success in this Midwestern, white, rural farming state does not guarantee success in the big urban centres of the coasts or in the small towns of the Deep South.
Obama’s momentum may well be halted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign machine next week in New Hampshire, where at the moment she leads decisively. A month from now – after more than 20 states vote on Feb 5, dubbed “Super Duper Tuesday” – he may be out of the race.
Nevertheless, even if Obama goes on to lose New Hampshire, the nomination and a shot at the presidency, it is still worth pausing to mark this moment in American political history, to ask how it is that a black man achieved what was supposedly impossible, and whether – even theoretically – he could win a nationwide election, too.
Some of the explanation of Obama’s success lies in his background, as well as in the rapidly changing ethnic landscape of America. Though he describes himself as “black”, is married to a black woman and was converted to Christianity in a black church, Obama represents something more complicated.
He is the son not of African-Americans but of an African – a Kenyan student – and a white woman from Kansas. He spent part of his childhood in Jakarta with his Indonesian stepfather, part in exotic (even for most Americans) Hawaii, and much time with his Midwestern family.
He studied at Occidental College on the West Coast and at Harvard Law School, breeding ground of the East Coast establishment. Then he worked as a community organiser in Chicago.
Many discounted Obama on the grounds of weirdness alone. He was not a mainstream white candidate, nor – in the minds of some black leaders – a “real” black American. Coming from Hawaii and Indonesia by way of Harvard and Chicago, he could not be geographically pigeonholed. And conventional wisdom decreed that no one whose middle name is “Hussein” could possibly win an election in middle America.
But all of us who cited that conventional wisdom had forgotten that America is a country of perpetual motion, that old barriers of intermarriage are breaking down, that immigration from Latin America and Asia is at a historic high and that “racial politics” now involves far more than just two races.
A few weeks ago, the writer Andrew Sullivan put it like this: “To be black and white, to have belonged to a non-religious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything – this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities.”
Nowadays, to be mixed up is normal.
Perhaps more importantly, Obama is at the moment the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, for whom the “culture wars” of the 1960s were not a formative influence. Though born in 1961, at the tail end of the baby boom, he was too young to demonstrate for or against Vietnam, too young to take sides for or against flower power and women’s lib.
He also missed out on the partisan warfare of the 1990s, when the baby-boomers replayed their struggles in Washington, and the Republican Revolution went head-to-head with the Clinton machine. He can talk about red states and blue states as if it genuinely doesn’t matter which was which – something neither Hillary nor John Edwards seems able to do.
Whether he would, as president, be as non-partisan, even apolitical, as he sometimes likes to sound is another matter. But in the meantime, his soothing language appeals to a younger generation, one tired of the baby-boomers and their left/right, hippy/straight, long-hair/crewcut political divisions.
Obama’s relative youth and outsider status also give him an unexpected perspective on traditional racial politics. He is not only post-Vietnam, he is post-civil-rights-movement, too. Unlike Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, he did not march in Selma or Birmingham, did not make his name in the struggle.
Both he and his wife, the eloquent and accomplished Michelle Obama – they met when she interviewed him for a job at a law firm – are beneficiaries of the civil rights era, but they no longer use its language or tactics.
They are financially and professionally successful by any measure and have raised two lovely, obviously well-adjusted daughters, Natasha and Malia Ann. This too makes them seem less combative, less angry and more self-confident than some of their predecessors.
This subtly different attitude appeals to white voters, but it might also win Obama more enthusiasts among younger minority voters than the pundits have so far assumed. And here I speak with a shred of experience, since one of my (black) university classmates – a law professor who, by age and temperament, is also post-civil-rights-movement – emailed me a few months ago to let me know he was working for the Obama campaign. I was not in the least surprised.
None of this answers the big question. Even if Obama continues his improbable trajectory and wins the Democratic nomination, can he make it to the White House? I find that when my British friends ask this question, what they really mean is: will Americans – in Mississippi, in Alabama, in the red states – vote for a black man?
I won’t presume to make predictions, at least not in such an unpredictable election year. But I will note that – at least for the moment – this question isn’t being put quite that way by Americans themselves, at least not in the immediate aftermath of a black man’s victory in a state as white as Iowa.
The questions being asked, rather, are whether a man who talks more about the “idea of America” than about particular policies can win; whether a man with such a complex personal history can win; and whether anyone can raise enough money over the internet to compete with the Clintons.
Perhaps it sounds odd, but at least today, Obama’s skin colour suddenly seems like an advantage. His victory makes Americans feel good about themselves. And they might not want to stop feeling good. David Brooks, the centre-Right columnist, put it like this: “When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say ‘No’?”
Maybe Hillary will defeat this unlikely candidate in the long run. But, for a few days at least, we can savour Obama’s victory as a step towards a post-baby-boom, post-civil-rights-movement – even a post-racist – America.