Published in the UK Times.
Most aspiring presidents and prime ministers face a myriad of challenges as they embark on their journey. Issue controversies, questions about ethics or past conduct, wounds within the party all raise their heads and confront the candidate. But the doubts Barack Obama faces are far more existential than the more superficial questions raised about most candidates. They go to his very core as a person and call into question his values, his worldview, and even his patriotism.
Hard racial divisions have softened in America but fear of the “other” persists. Their possible next president has a strange name. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He had a Muslim Kenyan father who left when he was a baby. He made his political career in the cesspool of American politics — the traditionally corrupt Chicago Democratic machine. His pastor of twenty years after whose sermons he entitled his book seems to hate white people in general and America in particular (despite getting $15 million in federal funding for his church). His wife says she is now proud of America for the first time in her adult life – and she’s in her mid forties. He is a bit of a reach for the average American voter.
If he were white, with similar associations, he would be suspect. But he comes from a world few white voters know or understand and the fear lingers that he is some kind of latter-day Manchurian candidate, a sleeper agent, poised to take control of the United States government.
What makes all this particularly difficult to fathom is that Barack Obama is a mild mannered intellectual, with a marvelous sense of poise and decorum, who handles himself eloquently and with dignity and comes to politics with a style and grace we have not seen since JFK. His pedigree includes Columbia University and Harvard Law where he was editor of the Law Review. He taught constitutional law. In his manner and his appearance he is as far from his controversial background and associates as one could possibly imagine.
But this disjuncture between who he appears to be and who his background and associations suggest he might be is so profound that it leads to the most basic of doubts and worries among American voters.
Hillary Clinton always has been the bÃªte-noir to blue collar, downscale, American men. But they lined up at the polls to vote for her, so deep was their fear of who Obama might turn out to be. Their inveterate sexism was no match for their racial fears, ignited by the questions surrounding Obama.
But none of these questions is of Obama’s own making. In two years of campaigning, in an environment in which waking moment is filmed and recorded, he has never uttered a single word to lend credence to those who imagine him to be an alien figure. He has been consistently classy and almost boringly straight as he has campaigned. The worst one could say about him is that he is a Hamlet-like intellectual who is often subject to paralysis by analysis.
To win, Obama must reach down deep and dispel the doubts people hold about him. So far, he has avoided inflaming them and taken great care not to lend them any credibility from his own statements or positions. Now, he must go further and reassure voters who want to believe him, but are afraid.
Is America ready for a black president? Hell yes it is. Obama’s triumphs in states where there are virtually no blacks attests to it. Until Rev. Jeremiah Wright opened his mouth, the candidate was sweeping white voters. Even when the black community discovered Obama and abandoned their historical affection for the Clintons, the white electorate refused to polarize along racial lines and Obama consistently won about half of the white vote. But when Wright spoke, he send a shiver of fear down the nation’s collective spine and millions of voters who wanted to back Obama, needed to vote Democrat, and hated George Bush, abandoned the black candidate out of fear.
To blow away this miasma of doubt will not be easy. Obama, a private person who dislikes emotional displays in public, will have to speak from the heart about what America means to him. He will have to embrace our national sense of uniqueness and give voice to what Ronald Reagan said of us: “You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.” American exceptionalism is deeply rooted in our national consciousness and it has been so offended by Rev. Wright’s characterization of the United States as a terrorist nation, a force of evil in the world, that Obama must assuage that hurt if he wishes to appease our fears.
While the United States has always worked to keep church separate from our government, there has always been a kind of civil religion in America which speaks to our values and mission in the world. The president of the United States is the high priest of that religion and it is up to him to give it voice and apply it to the challenges that pop up in our path. Obama must make it clear to his countrymen that he subscribes to that faith and can pick up his duties as high priest. He needs to articulate the national narrative
I doubt that this election will be close. Either Obama or McCain will probably win it in a landslide, depending on whether or not Obama can fulfill his existential mission of explaining to the American people who he really is.