FIRED UP

Why Obamamania? Because He Runs as The Great White Hope.

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By David Greenberg
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's upset victory in the New Hampshire primary last week was every bit as impressive as Sen. Barack Obama's Iowa caucus breakout five days before -- if anything, more impressive, since his win was predicted and hers unforeseen. But the reactions to the two events couldn't have been more different. Obama's Jan. 3 triumph let loose a giddiness bordering on exhilaration among voters and, especially, media commentators, who hailed his triumph as "historic," even though he was not in fact the first African American to win a major presidential nominating contest. (Jesse Jackson won 13 primaries and caucuses in 1988.) By contrast, when Clinton overcame long odds to become the first woman in U.S. history to win a major-party primary, no leading news outlet trumpeted this landmark feat. Many failed to mention it at all.

This startling difference underscores one of Obama's advantages heading into the do-or-die Feb. 5th contests. "Obamamania" sputtered in the Granite State, but it is far from dead. Many of the voters and pundits who were thrilled by Obama's compelling Iowa speech 10 days ago remain intoxicated, heady with the hope that he can deliver not just "change" -- any candidate running would do that -- but a categorically different kind of change from Clinton or the Republican candidates. So what explains the magic?

The most obvious explanation is Obama's stirring oratory, with its notes of generational change and unity. The key to his seduction, though, resides not just in what he says but in what remains unsaid. It lies in the tacit offer -- a promise about overcoming America's shameful racial history -- that his particular candidacy offers to his enthusiasts, and to us all.

Obama's allure differs from the infatuations of past election cycles because it can't be traced to what he has done or will do. In his legislative career, Obama has produced few concrete policy changes, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a rank-and-file fan who can cite one. Not since 1896 -- when another rousing speechmaker, William Jennings Bryan, sought the White House -- has the zeal for a candidate corresponded so little to a record of hard accomplishment. But merely asking if Obama has done enough for us to expect he'd be a good president misses the point, because that measures the past rather than imagining the future.

Yet if Obama charms us by pointing to tomorrow, he doesn't come bearing a new ideological vision. In the 1980 primaries, the insurgent Ronald Reagan won on his robust, pro-military, anti-government conservatism, a philosophy that until then had languished even within the GOP. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton triumphed because he was the first Democrat since the 1960s to formulate a viable and vital new liberalism -- one rooted in years of policy wonkery, a frank reckoning with his party's failures and an early recognition of the importance of globalization.

But where Clinton converted voters to his philosophy with binder-thick proposals, from AmeriCorps to welfare reform to the earned-income tax credit, Obama fans rarely tout his specific ideas. No one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's. On the contrary, Obama's ideology, insofar as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party's working-class base than to upscale professionals.

The Obama phenomenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who he is. As the social critic John McWhorter has written, "What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land." He is the great white hope.

None of the candidates has discussed race much this year. Even John Edwards's focus on poverty primarily stresses class, not race. But silences can reveal as much as words.

When Sen. Joe Lieberman accepted the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 2000, he exulted, "Only in America," and he celebrated his Jewishness in his opening spiel. But the first words of Obama's victory speech in bone-white Iowa -- "You know, they said this day would never come" -- alluded to race only through deft indirection. The national unity he went on to outline was, superficially, a harmony between red and blue states, with the much more elusive and important reconciliation between white and black America left tacit. Not until his closing did Obama acknowledge the speech's subtext with a remark about lunch counters and fire hoses, Selma and Montgomery, and "a father from Kenya." Throughout, his voice and cadences suggested that he had studied Martin Luther King Jr.'s register and rhythms, the better to subtly evoke liberalism's great lost moment of revolutionary achievement and unfulfilled promise.

Obama's rhetorical gifts clearly contribute to his allure. But that allure resides not simply in the mellow timbre of his larynx but, more deeply, in his near-perfect pitch in talking about race to white America. Obama doesn't shun race altogether -- if he did, he would provoke suspicions -- and he certainly doesn't "transcend" race, whatever that means. But neither, as the social theorist Shelby Steele has written, does he rub white America's face in its corrupt history of slavery and segregation. Traditionally, whites have appreciated such gentleness.

History provides a precedent of sorts: In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a dashing, almost aristocratic figure who defied many nasty stereotypes of Irish Catholics, made Protestants feel not just safe in voting for him but downright virtuous. They could flatter themselves that they were not prejudiced while still choosing a candidate as cultivated as any Brahmin. Similarly, Obama -- whose strongest appeal has thus far been to upscale white liberals -- allows those whites to feel good about themselves and their country. He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever.

At the same time, Obama doesn't threaten or discomfort whites. He doesn't strike them as wronged or impatient, or as the spokesman of a long-subjugated minority group or even as someone particularly culturally different from themselves. As much Kansan as Kenyan, Obama does not descend from families who suffered American slavery or Jim Crow. His family tree has fewer slaves than slaveholders, fewer chains than Cheneys.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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