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Obama's Promise -- And Its Limits

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Barack Obama's worldview is anchored in both his DNA and his experiences. This is a historical optimist at work: He believes that people and nations can change themselves, for the better -- and that they will be moved to do so even more by their differences than by their similarities.

This is the Barack Obama that the Illinois senator wants us to take away from his beautifully crafted Philadelphia address on race. His quest for the presidency will rise or fall on whether a predominantly white electorate accepts his daring premise of creative diversity. That notion is at the core of his candidacy -- and perhaps his very being.

In many ways, Obama's appeal flips the politics of race on its head. Without using the phrase, he promises something akin to "white liberation," a term I first heard growing up in the dying days of the Jim Crow South and then again in reporting from apartheid-era South Africa as white rule there began to crumble. Only by thoroughly understanding and rejecting the politics of race can whites liberate themselves from their own chains of exploitation, hatred and, yes, guilt, at least for older Americans.

White liberation is in one measure Obama's promise to the electorate. A presidential campaign built on the theme of change has to be based first of all on the malleability of human behavior and psychology. If the Obama crowds were to accept the ultimate logic of the words they chant, they would be shouting, "Yes, we can . . . change ourselves and others." This vast and uncertain endeavor is one, I suspect, to which they are unevenly committed.

Obama argues that race can unite Americans as well as divide them politically. The unspoken context of his speech is that the only two Democratic presidents elected in the past 40 years -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- were white Southerners who had helped turn their states and region away from the cruelest excesses of segregation.

Only then could they become credible at the national level in a country that had been deeply changed by a civil rights revolution -- which made their candidacies, and eventually Obama's, possible. Carter and Clinton were elected by a nation struggling to transcend racism, if not race.

Clinton even promised an ongoing national dialogue on race when he became president. It never materialized.

So Obama's groundbreaking speech -- ironically, forced on him by the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s incendiary sermons -- is a worthy starting point for that delayed national dialogue. By strongly rejecting Wright's view "that sees white racism as endemic" in the United States, Obama invites a lively colloquy far beyond this campaign.

The reach of this address is also global. It illuminates far better who Obama is than do all of the carefully scripted, opportunistic position papers on Iraq and NAFTA. "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents," Obama said. "And for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

At the same time, it is naive, or extremely self-serving, of Obama followers to suggest that the election of a black president will cause other nations to reconsider their most deeply held attitudes or policies toward the United States or open doors for him abroad that are closed to others. They -- and he -- will be surprised at how short the "Obama effect" will be in international politics if he is elected.

His genetic makeup shapes his view of the world much more than it would shape the world's view of him or the United States. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- Obama referred to them as "so-called allies" in his heralded 2002 speech opposing the Iraq invasion -- would judge him on such remarks and on what he says and does about Israel, Iran and Iraq. The back story of his multiracial, multinational ancestry and his rise from humble origins to success and idolatry would carry little weight at the conference table.

That is still far down the road if it is to happen at all. Hillary Clinton and John McCain still have their opportunities to explain that their versions of historical optimism are more realistic and better suited to the times -- even if they spring less directly from the long American struggle to overcome the corrosive consequences of this nation's racial divides. Fair enough.

But Obama has defined his campaign with a remarkable piece of political rhetoric that appeals to the entire nation's better instincts. For that, he deserves the attention and appreciation of his fellow citizens.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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