The SanityPrompt

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What Obama Needs To Do Now

Barack Obama continues to struggle in the polls in the wake of the return of the Rev Wright affair. His campaign appears to be faltering at a crucial time and we'll find out just how much tomorrow. His loss in Pennsylvania was just large enough to raise questions and concerns about him as a nominee, but not large enough to swing the election back to Hillary as a credible front - runner -- Nancy Pelosi's "leader after all the primaries are done."

Obama had no choice but to make a sharp clean break with the Reverend Wright. After Wright's performance, his clownish high-fives, declaring Zionism a gutter religion, that it was equivalent to racism, that the American government could have released AIDS in a ploy to decimate minority populations, etc etc etc., Obama had no other choice. His sadness at the development was evident on the day of his press conference. But his anger was somewhat muted. And the move, while it may have stopped the hemorrhaging of support, hasn't stopped the slow bleed. Hillary now leads Obama nationally among Democrats 47 to 40, which is fateful heading into a convention. She leads in Indiana and has closed the gap in North Carolina. So how can Obama win back momentum, shake the perception that he's too liberal, distance himself sufficiently from his divorce from Wright so that it won't be seen through the lens of political expediency at best, and a serious failure of judgment in the first place for having trusted Wright so much?

He needs to return to the big picture, thematic messages of his 'big-mo' period in February and March. Not to the policy particulars, and not just the small scale meet-and-greets and one-on -ones of Iowa. He needs to find an issue where talking about ideas, and about realities captures the imagination of people, reminds them that here is someone different, and restores the confidence and faith that has been shaken by the last three weeks.

No surprise there -- the challenge is how to do this.

My humble (OK I admit it, not so humble) suggestion is that he take on the social challenge of race in America in the way that only he can. After his speech on race in Philadelphia, one wag wrote that one benefit of Obama's stature, his candidacy, and a potential presidency was his capacity to tackle the problem of race from the full spectrum of both the politics and substance of the problem. In a speech in Texas that the author (Newsweek's Jonathan Alter) cites, Obama is quoted as addressing the problems within the black family that can often undermine and stymie a child's social and educational development and success (for an alternative perspective see here).
A woman asked about health care and Obama explained how, for the first time in human history, thousands of obese children, many of them black, were being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes—a disease that is killing millions and helping bankrupt the health-care system. He told the crowd that kids couldn't keep on "drinking eight sodas a day," then went in Bulworth's direction. "I know some of y'all got that cold Popeye's [chicken] out for breakfast. I know," Obama said with a smile. He continued: "That's why y'all laughing. You can't do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school … It's not good enough for you to say to your child, 'Do good in school,' and then when that child comes home, you got the TV set on, you got the radio on, you don't check their homework, there is not a book in the house, you've got the videogame playing." Instead of being jeered, he was cheered wildly.
Obama has been tarred, by Wright's actions and words, by HRC's campaign, and by the Right-Wing attack machine, as a liberal elitist. Implicit behind this is, of course, the subtext these code words fill-in for -- the subtext that plays on the dark heart of America's soul -- it's fear of the 'other,' it's unwillingness to confront racism and it's legacy, and blackness itself. The counter offensive in other words has moved Obama from a figure of hope appealing to the mainstream to a figure on the radical fringe of society. They have made Obama black in white eyes. Black like Al Sharpton. Black like Jesse Jackson. Black like Louis Farrakhan. Such figures are popular in the black community but have limited appeal beyond it and are threatening to millions of (admittedly mostly white) Americans.

Figures from the black community like Oprah, Michael Jordan, and, for a time, Michael Jackson, who achieve extreme success across the spectrum and full market of American society seem to conquer white society by appearing to 'transcend' their blackness. I know I am on dangerous ground here and I am not speaking sympathetically of this perception, but it almost seems that Americans forget that their hero is black. There is, of course a term or two in the black community to describe this development. Initially, Obama's candidacy was greeted skeptically and warily by black political leaders. Many endorsed HRC early and his support nationally among African American voters was, before the Iowa caucus, divided almost evenly with her. His success changed all that, of course, once the possibility of an African American leader of this nation became a suddenly viable possibility. But this early hesitation, combined with Obama's message and his background made him also a figure, unlike Jesse Jackson (much to Bill Clinton's befuddlement and bemusement) who appealed across the racial, economic and political spectrum of this society. Obama's challenge now is to return to this state and I think the way there is to channel Bill Cosby for a moment. Consider for a moment the following:
  • 48% of all black children grow up in homes without a father.
  • Blacks constitute 63 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons
  • Blacks comprise 49 percent of those in prison
  • Black male life expectancy is 68.8 years while that of white males is almost 76 years
  • The black drop out rate from HS is twice that of whites
  • Black children spend more time watching television than children of any other racial or ethnic group
Does racism persist in America? Of course. Has racism become institutionalized within the fabric of society in the form of unequal opportunities, services, and infrastructure? Sure. But can black families begin taking initiatives that will directly improve the lives of their children and themselves without waiting for whites to wake up? Absolutely. And millions of Americans know this complex reality but are frustrated that no one takes it on.

Obama can exercise leadership on this dimension. The very leadership on which his campaign is predicated. The kind of leadership that can cross divisions in society and heal old wounds. The kind of leadership that can begin to solve problems that are not just a matter of tax dollars or government programs. The kind of leadership Americans of all colors, religions, and creeds long for.

I recognize that this is dangerous ground socially. I understand that he may be criticized by some as blaming the victim. I recognize that some in America will see no further than his critique of black social dysfunction to accept their own culpability in and obligation to address the underlying problems. I am fully cognizant that this position can be easily accused of being just another instance of liberal racism. My hope is that eventually Obama can establish sufficient social and political capital with white society that he can tackle the full spectrum of American hypocrisy about race.

In my mind the culpability lies on both side -- who are complicit in an unwritten social compact in which white and black agree not to call the other to account. Following the early successes of the Civil Rights movement, the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, it faltered in its momentous surge to transform American society. And with the murder of leaders like the Kennedys and King, the self-immolation of Johnson (and American Liberalism) over the fires of Vietnam, it became convenient for whites to reassure themselves that their work was done. Of course all the nation had accomplished was to grab the low-hanging fruit of political expediency. The rise of debates over affirmative action and economic and social injustice (and the nation's economic stumbles in the Seventies) eventually turned the political tide against a further consideration of racial policy. And the country settled down into its current self-satisfied, and unsustainable compact. Whites wouldn't criticize the black community's problems or failures of leadership, and blacks wouldn't push too hard for social justice or in pointing out the pathological racism inherent in the system. To see just how real (and powerful) this social compact was, just consider for a moment how marginalized in political society figures like Jeremiah Wright and William Bennett are.

In one sense, my suggestion is admittedly a cynical political move. I suggest that Obama tackle race again by addressing the short-comings that the black community needs to tackle and address in order that he can restore the comfort level of potentially sympathetic whites. I suggest that he campaign by moving to the right of HRC. To the right even of McCain for a time. Is this potentially a move to appeal to the worst in America in order to appeal to what might become the best in America? Yes. But it is a move that returns Obama to a position of leadership AND race neutrality. It allows him to recapture the spotlight in a way that playing basketball, or bowling, or visiting a barbecue in Fort Wayne will never do. It's a move that Shelby Steele has alluded to but doubts Obama will ever make. And it's a move that positions him to once again recapture the imagination of millions of Americans who dream about what his victory could portend for this country nationally and internationally.

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