The Obama Advantage: How race was his ace in the hole

Way back in January, soon after Barack Obama won an improbable victory in the Iowa caucuses, I wrote an article arguing that—despite the conventional wisdom and the snide “white Americans will never vote for a black man” comments from my European friends—it was not a disadvantage to be a black presidential candidate. On the contrary, it was an enormous advantage.

I was right—but for the wrong reasons. At the time, when his main opponent was Hillary Clinton, I thought Obama’s skin color helped distinguish him from the Bushes, the Clintons, and the other dynastic families that then appeared to have an inexorable grip on American politics. His face alone told voters that he was the true anti-oligarchical, anti-status-quo outsider in the race. If nothing else, it identified him as a candidate who was definitely not related, or married, to a former president. But while not being Mrs. Clinton helped him win the primaries, not being white helped him even more in the national election—and not only among black voters or guilty white liberals.

Why? Because all Americans, white and black, liberal and conservative, are brought up to believe that their country is different, special, the “greatest nation on earth,” a “city on a hill.” We are all taught that our system is just, our laws are fair, our Constitution is something to be proud of. Lately, though, this self-image has taken a battering. We are fighting two wars, neither with remarkable success. We have just experienced a cataclysmic financial crisis. We are about to enter a recession. We are unloved around the world, and we know it. Electing our first black president won’t by itself solve any of these problems, but—to use the pop-psychological language for which Americans are justly famous—it sure makes us feel good about ourselves. That hysteria you saw on television in Chicago was, yes, partly about the return of the Democrats and partly about the passing of George Bush. As the rain-on-the-parade dispensers of sour grapes are already writing, it was absolutely about ideology, too. But it was also about relief: We really are a land of opportunity!
I think Obama knew this. It certainly explains why he started his acceptance speech by declaring, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible … tonight is your answer.” Strange though it sounds, I think McCain knew it, too: It explains why he went out of his way to praise Obama for “inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president.”

A century ago, he reminded his somber, occasionally booing audience, an earlier American president, Theodore Roosevelt, was widely condemned for inviting black educator Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House: “America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.” He didn’t have to say that—but he wanted a little of that “America is great again” feeling. He, too, was attracted, touched by the idea of a black president.

Maybe it’s superficial, and surely it won’t last. But I am convinced that it explains a lot, both about the election result and about this weirdly euphoric aftermath. That desire to feel, once again, like “the greatest nation on earth” explains why my friend J. the Republican cried when she watched Obama’s acceptance speech, even though she didn’t vote for him; why people stood in those longs lines to vote, all across the country; why I woke my children on Wednesday morning by singing “God Bless America.”

In, the end, it comes down to this: All Americans are told, as children, that “anyone can grow up to be president of the United States.” Because we have a black president we can now, however briefly, once again feel certain that it’s true.

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