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.
The big question now, though, is whether Obama's campaign can move enough Americans beyond their attachment to the dominant style of identity and special-interest politics. Given who Obama is, it is no small irony that that style began to take shape in the civil rights era of the Fifties and early Sixties, as the older system of machine and party politics was dying. The urban machine had served blacks at best unevenly, but it was of no use in overcoming the structural barriers of Jim Crow segregation and de facto disenfranchisement. And so a grass-roots movement dedicated to securing the full rights of black people emerged, galvanizing support and making headway through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other organized efforts to register voters and challenge racial barriers.
As a successful black civil rights movement morphed into a movement arguably focused more on securing particular, identity-related benefits—such as affirmative action—rather than leveling the playing field, it became the model for other identity groups, from women to Hispanics to people with disabilities.
The civil rights movement also contributed to the rise of what Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry calls "public interest politics," with scores of organizations emerging to protect the environment, defend children, or bring about campaign finance reform. Lacking the tight bonds between leaders and followers that typified machine politics or even the older political parties, public-interest politics depended on publicity and the media to focus the public's attention on their favored issues. As Skerry says, "It is a style of politics that is extremely rhetorical, exaggerates conflicts, and emphasizes grievances." First associated mainly with liberal and progressive causes, it has long been adopted by everyone from conservatives and libertarians opposed to taxes to fundamentalist evangelicals protecting family values. So we now have it: politics as a televised national shouting match, with intractable gridlock on issues of pressing national concern. And Skerry doubts that even so skilled a politician as Obama can change or even escape this political reality. "I welcome the rhetoric," Skerry says, "but I don't think he is the transformational leader everyone thinks he is."
Others agree. Among them is author Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and controversial conservative critic of race-based politics in contemporary America. In his new book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, Steele argues that entrapment in black identity and identity politics will ultimately hold Obama back. Steele claims that Obama chose "blackness" partly out of a desire to connect with an absent father he barely knew. While it is debatable that any racial identity is freely chosen in America, Obama himself has written eloquently of his efforts to forge connections with black America, whether through his work as a community organizer in South Side Chicago or through his membership in a strongly Afrocentric church.
More controversially, though, Steele insists that Obama's cultivation of "blackness" led him to deny, or at least downplay, the values by which his white mother raised him, including a strong work ethic, a code of personal responsibility, and a traditional liberal emphasis on universalism over the particularities of race. "He goes," Steele says, "to a black nationalist church that his mother would not be comfortable in."
Race bargaining. Steele concedes that Obama uses his blackness more subtly than an earlier generation of black leaders and that this milder "bargaining" style is the heart of his appeal, particularly among white liberals seeking expiation from their own sense of collective historical guilt. But even this form of race bargaining will ultimately limit Obama's appeal, Steele contends, because it will not allow him to be honest enough about those values (conservative ones, in Steele's reckoning) that have enabled him to succeed in his own life. "He can articulate the conservative value system very well," says Steele, "but he still looks to government to do everything."
Everything? The extremity of this and other conclusions not only undercuts Steele's more nuanced points but also denies what others see as Obama's success in forging links of shared interest among groups as seemingly diverse as urban blacks in Atlanta and rural whites in Maine. But it is not just conservatives who charge that even a subtle form of identity politics will ultimately weaken Obama's message and appeal, particularly among other minority groups such as Hispanics. Juan Rangel, CEO of United Neighborhood Organization in Chicago, knew Obama as an organizer and as a state legislator and says that he admires much about the candidate. "More than most other African-American leaders, he is looking for ways to buck the old style of black politics," Rangel says, "But he's no Bill Cosby in insisting on personal responsibility."
A Clinton supporter himself, Rangel questions how far Obama will be able to move beyond "a black activist mentality" that he believes emphasizes victimization. "It's hard for someone coming out of that tradition to break out of it without losing their core constituency," says Rangel. "He's trying to walk the line of not offending the old leadership."
But, in truth, how else could an African-American Democratic politician walk? Roger Wilkins, a professor of history at George Mason and both a participant in and observer of the civil rights movement, says that Obama has a political agenda that goes far beyond, but still includes, the issues of discrimination and poverty as matters that must be addressed to achieve a better America. But as Wilkins puts it, "He is not a civil rights era guy, and he can't pretend to be one. Nobody wants someone whose mind is stuck in and formed by events of four decades ago. This man is looking at America whole."
American idol. Yet the carefully calibrated distance that Obama has maintained from Jackson and other civil rights era leaders continues to provoke comment. Some who know him say that Jackson, for one, has been quietly hurt by that distance, even while understanding the need for it.
Obama's critics from the left even charge that he and other members of a younger generation of black politicians—including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker—have gone too far in distancing themselves not only from the older leaders but also from the issue-driven movement-style politics of the civil rights era.
"Obama's politics is corporate driven," says author-activist Kevin Gray, who headed Jackson's South Carolina campaign in 1988. "It's advertising. It's image related. It hits on broad themes and can't come down on any issues unless there's a broad consensus." Sounding at times a little like Steele, Gray says that he finds talk about an "Obama movement" both revealing and disturbingly empty. "It is dangerous to see a man as a movement," says Gray, "even if he is identified with change in some big way. We ought to be clear what we mean about these things, or we just end up with the American Idol president." In light of what the civil rights movement of the 1960s achieved in the areas of law and social policy, why, Gray asks, shouldn't the new black leaders—whom he calls "smoothy-doothies"—be pressing for equally bold changes?
But many of the old movement people acknowledge that times and challenges have changed. "It's a necessary choice he's made," says Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a professor of history at the University of Virginia and American University. "You can't hope to be a governor or president unless you appeal to a broad swath of people." Still, Bond doesn't accept that Obama has abandoned the ideals of the movement, even if he operates in ways that are different from those of the old movement leaders. "Listen to what he says; read what he writes," Bond says. "He's combining two [political] styles and making them into one."