But all of that has changed in the past few weeks. Part of what has changed is, of course, the intensification of the financial crisis—the fall of Lehman, the panic in the markets, and the Bush administration’s admission that a huge government bailout was necessary—which has focused the electorate’s mind. But some credit should also be given to Obama, who responded to his sagging poll numbers by becoming much more effective at delivering the Democratic economic message. These days, Obama doesn’t try to place blame equally on right and left, he denounces “an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else,” and describes the crisis as “a final verdict on this failed philosophy.” He sounds, in other words, a lot like Bill Clinton in 1992. And that’s a good thing.
So the election will be a referendum on conservative economic policies after all. And while nothing in politics is certain, the odds are that this referendum will indeed produce a big victory for Obama and his party. What they’ll do with that victory is another question, but for now, at least, the prospects for a new New Deal are looking bright again.
Hillary Clinton tripped herself up last May, in the waning days of her candidacy, by staking a claim to broad support among “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.” At a reasonable guess, based on expectations of a high turnout, more than 65 million Americans—mostly white, many hard-working—will cast their votes in a few weeks for the first nonwhite presidential candidate with a chance to win. That may not be enough to put Barack Obama over the top in what figured to be a Democratic year even before the Wall Street debacle. If he snatches victory, we’ll be drenched with self-congratulations on having passed a cultural and political milestone. If he loses by 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the vote, it will still be a milestone but many will then say that Clinton was right, that it had been “too soon,” that latent bigotry made the difference.
Either way, political scientists will have a field day designing studies to determine whether racially motivated votes against the Democrat were more or less offset by racially motivated votes for him. How can every black vote be considered racially motivated when any Democrat would have gotten most black votes? Similarly, in failing industrial areas where blue-collar voters have trended Republican since Ronald Reagan, how can every McCain vote be classed as racial? It’s a discussion that we can’t stop having but one that we’d do well to tune out in the short time that remains. Perhaps this is as good a moment as any—before he’s canonized or picked apart—to acknowledge that Obama has proven, up to the beginning of the home stretch at least, to be a remarkably sturdy, consistent, well- informed, and even far-seeing candidate. Some would even say inspirational but as a journalist, I’m ready to be practically anything—amused, persuaded, surprised, disgusted, impressed—except inspired. When others are inspired, I take note of the fact.
Early on, it was hard not to take note of that fact, especially after Obama aced the Iowa precinct caucuses with a turnout that was more than 90 percent white and included a considerable leap in the percentage of young voters. In those days, Obama could be forgiven for confusing his campaign with a “movement.” But we crave newness in this media age, and the revivalist “Yes we can” chanting seemed a little tired, even empty, by the time the grinding primary schedule got to Ohio. It became clear that Obama was not only a cool customer but a politician with a game plan that he was following in a disciplined way. The plan gained him the nomination but nervous supporters wanted more bite—more sound bite, that is—in his debate answers, more fire in his careful comments on the imploding financial system. Enough with the thoughtfulness, they seemed to be saying.
What they got was smart, balanced, and too obviously risk-adverse. Maybe now is the time to acknowledge that such qualities could wear well in the White House; that the candidate’s refusal to be stampeded by breathless commentary and advice on the blogosphere and Op-Ed pages suggests that maybe he really is a grounded, serious person who’s not just playing a part; that he would never have gotten this far, heading a well-managed national campaign without obvious fissures or strategic lurches, if he lived, like so many of our would-be leaders, only in the media moment where almost anything a candidate says will be instantly drowned out and written off.
He was patronized as inexperienced and naive when more than a year ago he started calling for cross-border raids into Pakistan on al-Qaeda targets if there was “actionable intelligence” and our supposed ally declined to act. The idea may yet backfire but it recently became Bush administration policy. Ditto for his calls for a shift of forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. John McCain pays him the highest compliment by stealing his campaign themes. McCain is now the candidate of “change” who wants to reform the financial system and its legions of K Street lobbyists, which is where the supposedly inexperienced Obama began. I’m not contending that Obama is a seer, only that he seems to have read our time and the country’s mood more intelligently than any of his rivals. We’ll now see how well the country has read him.
Obama hasn’t based his political identity on race, at least not since he established himself on the South Side of Chicago and published his memoir. Nor has he asked people to be colorblind. Cautiously but unmistakably, he presents himself as a figure who can get past old divisions, that the accident of birth that made him half black and half white may have given him an inner balance and wide-angle set of intuitions that now make it possible for him to bring people together. It’s an idea he frequently alludes to but seldom dwells on in racial terms. You might call it the unbearable lightness of being biracial; it’s not, however, an idea to be scoffed at. No doubt it has real appeal to many voters in the age of Oprah. If it didn’t, tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have to be poured into attack ads rebranding him as a celebrity elitist, not like you and me. His problem may be less race than invincible skepticism. Obama is not, after all, the first candidate to present himself as a healer, not a divider.
Campaign positions are straws in the media wind, frequently blown away by hard events. Eight years ago, after nine judicial votes were tallied in Washington, the country discovered it had more or less elected a candidate who also promised a “humble” foreign policy and opposed “nation-building.” Look where it got us.
We have to believe that Obama is prepared for how ugly things are going to get. Sarah Palin may have aroused the Republican Party, but she won’t attract a meaningful number of Hillary supporters. She isn’t going anywhere near Whoopi Goldberg and The View. The independents Palin is said to have won over weren’t going to vote for Obama anyway, but had been looking for a socially acceptable reason to cover up why they weren’t. There are white people out there, lying to pollsters and to their children, who just are not going to vote for a black man. But the polls concern those most likely to vote, meaning, according to the FEC, the 60.7 percent of eligible voters who went to the polls in the last presidential election. Last time is not this time. This election will be decided by voters we have not heard from before.
Mainstream television is no longer a window on America. In this election, we will hear from that other America that’s been busy trying to get by and is ambivalent about messages from the mainstream. They were watching television the night of Obama’s acceptance speech, and, lo, television was showing us something real—the invasion of the mainstream by people from an America that maybe isn’t as racist as it used to be. If Obama’s candidacy is historic in what it says about how far black people have come, then it is also history-making in what it tells us about how white people see themselves in relation to the wider world, especially now that white guilt is mostly associated with the past.
Obama is a ruthless politician. He has demonstrated that he can’t be rattled. His organization is a crucial reason why I’m not freaking out. The Internet is still Obama country. One page of his Web site asks for lawyers to help monitor the polls, suggesting that his campaign is remembering Ohio and Florida and will be ready. But Obama showed in his generosity toward McCain during the first debate his determination to wage his campaign on his own terms and on his suitability to be an effective international leader.
Look how, since the Democratic convention, the Latino vote that Obama lost to Clinton two to one is going to Obama over McCain, 66 percent to 23 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Obama will take much of the West, and this new bloc will break the hold that the Solid South has had over presidential elections since Nixon.
The Obamas are as attractive as the Kennedys, and why shouldn’t there be an echo of the New Frontier in Obama’s calls for America to rededicate itself to a common purpose? But I’m not thinking of the Kennedy–Nixon race so much as I am of Robert Kennedy’s bid in 1968. Kennedy was on his way to the nomination and if he had survived the country could have taken a different path. This election has the same feeling, that sense that we are at a fork in the road, and must go one way or the other. It feels like a chance to go back and make up for what did not happen because of the political violence of the 1960s.
Obama’s candidacy is unprecedented. Maybe it is calling forth new forces in politics that—to use Jacobo Timerman’s phrase—make the semantic adventurism of the Republicans futile. I don’t know how many voters there are under thirty, but there are eight million between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. If they are watching Fox, then they are also watching The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, and everything on YouTube. The mainstream can’t keep up with them and they aren’t dependent on the mainstream for their information.
I am not saying that the young are uniformly progressive. I teach black history at a small liberal arts college and I am to the left of my students. They say, “I’m a conservative.” I say, “Good. Obama is a social conservative, too.” And he is. Even so, Obama won the largest share of the youth vote of any candidate in the primaries. We have been waiting for the youth vote since 1972. This time they must show up, because the young make the paranoid style of politics irrelevant.