Michael Levy: Barack Obama ... From Mission Impossible to Mission Accomplished

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[Michael Levy is Britannica's Executive Editor. He received a bachelor’s degree (1991) in political science from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate (1996) in international relations and comparative politics from the University of Kentucky.]

On November 4, Barack Obama went from being a U.S. senator to becoming president-elect of the United States of America—the first person to make such a leap since John F. Kennedy in 1960. With Kansas and Kenyan roots, Obama’s has been an improbable journey that has taken him from Hawaii to Indonesia to Los Angeles to New York City to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Chicago, to Washington, from food stamps to wealth, from a candidate many African American commentators two years ago considered “not black enough” to one who became a symbol of what African Americans—and any American—could achieve.

Whether a supporter or critic of Obama, by any measuring stick it has been a miraculous journey for Obama—and for America.

In 1996 he was elected, at age 35, to the Illinois Senate, having won the race after playing hardball politics by ruthlessly using ballot laws to keep incumbent Alice Palmer—and every other candidate—off the primary ballot (he was her chosen successor, but after she failed to win a special U.S. congressional election she decided to run for her post again, though Obama refused to withdraw).

In 2000 he attempted to oust Bobby Rush from his seat in Congress, but in the primary Rush defeated him handily and at the Democratic National Convention that year Obama had his credit card declined and was all but broke.

Four years later, though, fortune shone down on Obama in an unlikely series of events that raised him from relative obscurity to the U.S. Senate and a rising celebrity in the Democratic Party. In the 2004 Democratic U.S. Senate primary Obama was trailing, but millionaire Blair Hull, who looked set to win the primary, became ensconced in a scandal that left him with only 11% of the vote after spending $29 million of his fortune. Obama capitalized on Hull’s misfortune, surging to defeat Illinois state comptroller Dan Hynes with 53% of the vote.

Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated Jack Ryan, a telegenic, moderate Republican, who won 36% in a crowded field and appeared well placed to defeat Obama. But, fortune again came to Obama. Reports surfaced of Ryan’s messy divorce from actress Jeri Lynn—as well as allegations that he toted her off to sex clubs throughout the country. Eventually, in June 2004 Ryan withdrew from the race, saying “It’s clear to me that a vigorous debate on the issues most likely could not take place if I remain in the race… What would take place, rather, is a brutal, scorched-earth campaign — the kind of campaign that has turned off so many voters, the kind of politics I refuse to play.”

The Illinois Republicans made a fateful decision that secured an easy Obama victory, selecting conservative African American politician and former diplomat Alan Keyes to take Ryan’s place on the ballot. The fact that Keyes hailed from Maryland and had views at odds with most mainstream voters in the state (both Republican and Democratic) made the choice curious and politically suicidal. (One has to wonder where Obama would be if they had instead been able to turn to legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka.)

Sensing opportunity, Democratic nominee John Kerry plucked Obama from Illinois to make the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention. Obama’s speech was electrifying—one that you could hear echoes of on the campaign trail in 2008, in particular his continual allusion to the need to stop the polarizing politics of red state and blue states and instead heal the country by bringing it together as one:

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. (See video; text.)

In the end, Obama trounced Keyes, winning 70% of the vote. In effect, those who voted against Obama on Tuesday can rightly cast much of the blame for his win on the Illinois Republican Party, which handed Obama a victory and—in effect—handed him the White House run.

Obama’s star power made him a huge draw on the fundraising circuit and brought whispers that he could well be a future presidential candidate. But, 2012 seemed more likely, as Hillary Clinton appeared poised to sail easily toward nomination. Her husband Bill Clinton was beloved by the party faithful, and she had lined up the endorsement of most prominent Democrats.

Typical of Obama’s career, however, has been a willingness to fight against what seem to be insurmountable odds. It’s no wonder that his 2006 vision for America was entitled The Audacity of Hope–Obama has always pushed the envelope and never waited “his turn.” (Of course, the title of that book would become controversial, given its origin as the title of the sermon given by Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose views and sermons came under scrutiny after videos were release in which he said “God Damn America,” that 9/11 was America’s “Chickens coming home to roost,” and referring to the country as the “U.S. of K.K.K.A.”)

In February 2007, on a frigid day, Obama announced his candidacy to 15,000 supporters on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield where Abraham Lincoln once served. Obama’s roots in the black community were challenged—Time ran a cover story that month asking “Is He Black Enough?” Obama was African American to be sure, but his biracial upbringing—not to mention his “foreign” and “Muslim-sounding” name—and his lack of history with the traditional American civil rights movement caused some African Americans (Chicagoan Jesse Jackson, Sr., in particular) to question his credibility. His support in the African American community was quite tepid, with most powerful African American politicians, including civil rights legend John Lewis, backing Hillary Clinton, whose husband was referred to by Toni Morrison as “America’s First Black President.”

Obama had a strong appeal to those who conservatives have sometimes derisively labeled the latte-drinking liberal elite and young liberal college-educated whites, who helped bankroll his campaign with small donations. But, throughout 2007 Obama struggled to make inroads into the African American community, many either viewing him suspiciously or suspicious that “white America” would never allow an African American to be elected president.

Obama staked his candidacy on Iowa’s caucuses. Indeed, in September 2007, Obama’s wife Michelle conceded that Obama had a one-state strategy: “If Barack doesn’t win Iowa, it is just a dream.

The dream eventually survived Iowa, with Obama winning the state with 38% of the vote and pushing Hillary to third behind John Edwards. Obama immediately became the front-runner and looked to possibly put Hillary away in New Hampshire. And, it looked like he just might. The polls put him well ahead of Clinton—by an average 8%–but like her husband Bill, she made a miraculous comeback in the Granite State, winning a slim—but decisive—victory and salvaging her candidacy.

Unbowed, Obama’s concession speech is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of losing oratory in political history, spawning his “Yes We Can” speech and Will.i.am’s stirring musical tribute that was watched by millions on Youtube.

Onto South Carolina, where the primary got nasty, with some accusing Obama of playing the race card while others accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of doing so—a rift that wasn’t healed (if it has been fully) until last month, when Bill made his first campaign appearance in Florida with Obama. With a large African American population in South Carolina and black voters warming to Obama after the dustup with the Clintons, Obama demolished Hillary, winning 55% of the vote to her 27%. From there, Obama went on to capture the nomination after a sometimes-bitter primary fight that lasted until the last primary day (and nearly beyond) in June.

Before South Carolina, the question was whether Obama was black enough. After South Carolina, some wondered if he was “too black.” Almost overnight, Obama’s support within the African American community shot to nearly 90%, as African Americans were put off somewhat by what was perceived as the Clinton’s playing of the race card (Bill likened Obama’s victory in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988—leading some to consider this a major slight) and many African Americans for the first time thought an Obama victory was possible (though many also feared for his safety). Though Obama’s appeal grew among African Americans and youth voters, his appeal among working-class whites dropped. Indeed, in many states in which Obama was trounced by Clinton (e.g., Kentucky and West Virginia) race was a significant factor—with some one in five Democratic voters saying race mattered and the overwhelming majority of these voters opting for Clinton. (Indeed, Hillary even spoke of her ability to garner support among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.” )

Despite the bruises that Obama took in the primary—his lumps at the hands of the Clintons and the fact that he had to distance himself from and then disown his pastor of 20 years, the man who brought Obama to embrace Christianity, who married he and his wife Michelle, and who baptized his children—he continued to fight on with unity of purpose. It couldn’t have been easy for Obama to disassociate with Wright, and the public was privy to Obama’s thought process as he remained loyal and dithered a bit until Wright threw Obama under the bus at the National Press Club. Still, Obama’s “teachable moment” in March and his speech on race in Philadelphia in the maelstrom of the Wright controversy stands as perhaps the most important statement on race in the United States in the past several decades.

As I watched Obama handle himself, I—like countless millions others, conservatives and liberals alike—noticed his grace under pressure, his ability to take a punch and to fight back but to do so without animosity and with an ability to somehow float above the political machinations.

It’s not that Obama’s not a politician. He is. It’s not that he probably doesn’t have a huge ego. He probably does. It’s not that he’s just some idealist who thinks that hope can somehow win out over pragmatism. He’s a realist in many ways. And, it’s not that he doesn’t sometimes play dirty, hardball politics. He does.

Rather, what many see in Obama–liberals as well as the many conservative commentators who switched party lines to endorse Obama–is his seemingly unparalleled ability to tap into our hopes and calm our fears.

And, though polls showed that the American public by and large had more of an affinity toward Obama’s policies, it is not those policy pronouncements that won him the election. Rather, it was his demeanor.

During the financial meltdown, he provided a soothing response, in contrast to McCain, who threatened to fire Chris Cox, suspended his campaign (or didn’t), and sought to delay the first debate between the two. Obama, instead, worked calmly behind the scenes and noted that a president had to deal with more than one thing at a time. A close race was instantly transformed into a potential landslide, with Obama’s stock rising and McCain’s falling.

The die was thus cast. Thereafter, no charge McCain or running mate Sarah Palin threw seemed to stick—that Obama “palled around with terrorists” and other unsavory anti-Americans (including Reverend Wright, who resurfaced in Republican ads the weekend before the election); that he was a socialist who was running to be “redistributor in chief”; that he was too inexperienced to become president…yet.

A new era has (potentially) begun in American politics. The symbolism of Obama’s victory cannot be overstated. In just over two months he will become America’s 44th president–and its first African American president. That alone sends a signal to the world and every kid in America and is a fulfillment of the American creed that if you work hard enough that you can be anything, no matter your race or religion. Obama is a man with attachments to three continents. His is a politics that some say, as Colin Powell did, transcends the old ways of doing things in Washington and may usher in a new approach to campaigns and campaign tactics. And, some say his candidacy is symbolic of a new post-racial society, though of course in the end race played a large role, both in favor and against his candidacy.

The expectations of Obama’s supporters are great. And, the challenges he and a Democratic Congress face are even greater. With the economic crisis adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the national deficit and perhaps a trillion dollars to the national debt, Obama (or any president) will be hamstrung and will find it difficult to fulfill his promises—at least in the short-term.

Can Obama live up to all the hype and expectations? Almost certainly not. And, therein lies the rub. For all the millions of people he inspired to participate in the political process for the first time, the kind of politics we inherit from this improbable candidacy is not in his hands but in theirs. Do they become disenchanted when he is unable to fulfill every promise? Do they retreat from the political process with cynicism? Or, do they continue to stay engaged?

The answers to those questions will determine whether this improbable journey has transformed American politics or merely suspended our polarizing politics for but one electoral cycle (not that it was wholly absent from this cycle). Although the cynic in me believes that in four years we’ll be right back where we were during the Clinton and Bush eras, still divided along the wedge issues, the grudging optimist buried deep within thinks that Obama might just be that transformational politician Powell endorsed–that he might just prove the cynics, including me, wrong.

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