Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama

The harder-working candidate won. The smarter, more academic candidate won. The more charismatic speaker won. The more consistent, more even-tempered candidate won. The more hopeful, more inclusive candidate won. Dare I say it? The better community organizer won. Unlike the past two presidential elections, which made it seem like cynical demographic triangulations were the only path to victory in 21st century politics, yesterday I had the feeling that that the better candidate really did win, as opposed to the better strategy, which had triumphed in the past. That is truly a cause for hope.

However you voted, and in whatever way you care to parse the election results, I think it is clear that Barack Obama out-hustled John McCain at almost every step of the campaign, kept a steadier hand upon the direction of his candidacy, and ultimately prevailed at least in part because of these reasons. Obama cultivated a clear vision and (mostly) stayed with his message and his ideals throughout the entire epic campaign. No small feat in a two-year contest. Factor in that Obama is black, and his victory seems all the sweeter: here is finally proof that white privilege can be cast aside, at least for a moment, and that the better man can actually win the top elective office, regardless of race.

I think Obama is going to be a great president. He and his staff ran an incredibly disciplined, focused, intelligent campaign, and they sustained the effort for a very long time. If his administration is anything like his campaign, I think we really will see some positive changes in the next four years. I don't agree with Obama on every issue, and the nation and the world he inherits have monumental problems to face. But I am very excited at the prospect of Obama stepping in to heal the festering wounds that mar our body politic. Congratulations to him and all of his supporters.

* * *

A few words about race.

When I was a college student, over the course of two quarters I spent my lunch hour watching and discussing Eyes on the Prize, the seminal 14-hour documentary series about the civil rights movement. The stories of the movement and the power of the archival footage made simply watching that series and participating in the discussion groups a transformational event for me.

I saw in that series the totality of the American experience for the first time. The true arc of American history is woefully incomplete without a full appreciation of the civil rights movement. Colonial-era slavery culminated in the American Civil War. The Civil War begot the Reconstruction. The Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow laws and segregation. This institutionalized racism led ultimately to the movement. And politicians and policy makers since then have alternatively tried to shore up, fight against, or co-opt the legacy of that movement. The Black experience isn't some minor part of American history; it is American history.

Fast forward to the primary season at the beginning of this year. To me, it seemed we were closer to a Black president in 1988 when Jesse Jackson made a run than we were in 2008. But on this stage an insurgency was already brewing in the person of Barack Obama.

Obama is not a preacher, a military man, an athlete, or a movie star, as one might have expected the first African-American president to be. In spite of noises to the contrary, he wasn't really a celebrity of any kind. Derided by Sarah Palin for being a "community organizer," it turned out that that was his fundamental strength: his feet-on-the ground, working knowledge of how to build and maintain a coalition propelled him to victory.

Watching Eyes on the Prize, I couldn't help but think that as a nation we had drifted away from the promise and focus and optimism of those bygone years. I can see that I was wrong. In Obama lives a deep knowledge of and respect for that history, and whose rhetoric is steeped in that tradition. I am thrilled by the knowledge that his election will energize the dialog on race in the United States. And I am deeply, deeply happy that the hopes and dreams of so many tireless participants in the civil rights movement, these community organizers, are partially fulfilled by Obama's ascendancy. They sacrificed so much, and some paid the ultimate price for their belief in a nation that could live up to its highest ideals. This victory is theirs.


J G-W said...

Well said. Amen and amen.

I think the first great challenge of the Obama presidency will be when he has to make a decision that risks pissing off part of his "base," whatever that is supposed to mean to a man who is actually ow elected president of all the people.

The challenge will be both for him and for those of us who disagree with him, to see how we can work and move forward in a way that will serve the greater good...

I think he's up to the challenge. The question will be: are we?

Knight of Nothing said...

Thanks John! I'm still having trouble putting all of my thoughts into words. The word "historic" is thrown around so carelessly that it is tempting to be cynical when one hears it. But this election was truly historic. I was a fairly detached observer for most of Obama's candidacy, but the power and significance of yesterday is not lost on me.

You ask the central question. I want to believe that people are always up for that kind of challenge, but are also easily distracted by more parochial concerns. The truest, best kind of leader motivates people to make sacrifices to serve the greater good. Obama just might be the kind of leader able to fulfill that role.

J G-W said...

I was having a conversation with a friend about this last night.

Actually, the context of the conversation was volunteering at a homeless shelter. That's relevant, because we were talking about Obama's career as a "community organizer."

One of the worst things about the Bush administration is that I literally feel like America was violated by him. Large majorities opposed the war in Iraq, and organized to try to stop it; but the Bush administration actions were always to disempower people, to shut them down, to make them feel like their participation and their action didn't matter. We were supposed to just lie down and take it. Just let him and his thugs do whatever they wanted. And they did. And we -- and the world -- are now pretty battered and bruised for it. Bush's politics were a politics of fear, hate and division -- fear of "terrorists," labeling of loyal Americans as unpatriotic, attacking gays... The list goes on and on.

The fact you raise in your essay, that Obama was a community organizer, and that he may therefore have some intuitive understanding of the ways to unleash the creative energies of the American people, may be his single greatest asset.

But our part in this is we need to get out of the mentality (promoted by the cynicism and brutality of 8 Bush years) that we have no role in democracy beyond electing our leaders. We must play a role in building and nurturing our communities -- and government needs to be our partner in this work! That's what Obama seems to have made a cornerstone of his approach to the presidency.

So I am not optimistic (a passive mood). I am hopeful.