Barack Obama says he stands for a new kind of politics, and many Americans clearly approve of that message. So many, in fact, that if the junior U.S. senator from Illinois doesn't win the presidency or even prevail in what is now a dead-heat run for his party's nomination, his candidacy will still be seen as what University of New Hampshire historian Harvard Sitkoff calls "an important moment in American political history."
Important is an understatement. That a black man has mounted so successful a charge upon the nation's highest political office speaks volumes about changes that have occurred in America even since Jesse Jackson made his own impressive bids for that office in 1984 and 1988. But to attribute too much of the significance of Obama's achievement to changes in attitudes toward race is to slight the content of Obama's message. That message is the promise of a politics of unity and change—a politics that acknowledges differences of identity and interest but at the same time insists upon the need for compromise and cooperation to achieve the common good.
It can be exhilarating, of course, this talk of a politics transcending party, faction, interest, and identity, but it is not really new. In the earliest days of the American republic, President George Washington called for just such a politics to halt what he saw as a debilitating slide toward partisan intransigence. And, to some degree, American politics ever since has vacillated between periods of intense factionalism and ones of relative national unity. The first decades after World War II, for example, are commonly described as an age of consensus, when a "vital center" prevailed.
If that center began to collapse in the late 1960s, it was completely destroyed during the past 15 years. The labels red and blue now define a partisan divide so profound that it seems to have produced two entirely different nations. That divide is itself sustained by a host of other divisions, including those of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, region, class, religion, and "values." And what such identity politics has left unsundered, the war of special interests has further divided.
So what is it about this man with a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas-born mother that makes so many Americans believe it is possible to govern the nation differently? The answer, inescapably, leads back to race—and, specifically, to how Obama has dealt with it in his private and public life. (He has told much of that story in his two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope.) Obama's struggle with the historical and personal realities of being an African-American in a nation whose original sin was its enslavement of Africans and whose enduring shame has been its unequal treatment of black people is what makes his talk of a politics that goes beyond identity and the special claims of group or interest seem so important. It is what challenges Americans of all walks and political persuasions to consider what this new politics might mean, for themselves and for their nation.
Many have concluded that it means a great deal. In a ringing endorsement that connected his brother JFK’s legacy with the inspirational qualities of the candidate, Ted Kennedy hailed Obama's campaign as being "about the country we will become, if we can rise above the old politics that parses us into separate groups and puts us at odds with one another." And even while emphasizing the racial significance of the Obama phenomenon, Sitkoff says that it is also about "getting beyond the identity politics, the rabid partisanship that we've seen for the last 15 years, expressed in the intense animus against both [Bill] Clinton and [George W.] Bush."
Civil rights. Hillary Clinton and her supporters charge that talk of transcending partisanship is so much poetry and that it ignores the necessity of standing up for partisan principles. But this attack ignores that Obama's conciliatory approach has not prevented him from working for a very liberal agenda in Congress.