As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
This blog is about the new ideas that can change our world and how a 'new multilateralism' can tackle the global challenges of our age.
Change the World, Reports from the Fabian new year conference

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama in Philadelphia

This is Obama's time of greatest peril in the primary race. Though he trails heavily in the last big contest in Philadelphia, Obama is all but uncatchable in pledged delegates and should be able to hold on to his popular vote lead too. The nomination is definitely his to lose. But that means a month, without a run of electoral contests to punctuate the campaign, where the overriding question is his viability as a General Election nominee.

Hillary Clinton has (only) performed well when the underdog. Twice - before New Hampshire, and before Texas - voters decided against crowning Obama, instead keeping the contest going. Now, the last hope of the Clinton campaign is an Obama implosion, sufficient to give super-delegates cause to put the nomination back in play at the convention. And Obama has had to address the issues - the Rezko relationship and Reverend Jeremiah Wright's 'God damn America' comments (video) - which could derail the candidacy, or (perhaps just as damaging) turn him into just another politician.

So today's Philadelphia speech (which is well worth watching in full: video; full text) mattered a great deal. Obama's response to a potential campaign crisis is being called bold and unconventional. Yet it was also entirely predictable. Obama could do no other. And that helps to explain why he got it so right.

It was good for Obama to be able to deepen the campaign message beyond the 'change' and 'hope' slogans; and to make sure his audience understood that the aspiration to a post-racial politics and society will be much more complicated than wishing it were so, but no less noble an ambition for that.

Obama's candidacy has been too much, too often discussed through the prism of race. That is inevitable. I have done it myself. But this has led to something of a tendency to patronise and underestimate Obama: because he will symbolise change, he can not hope to do more than that. Perhaps, that would be how it ended: that his Presidential campaign would prove the high point, of hopes promised but never fulfilled. But let us hold on to the possibility too that he could make much more use of the bully pulpit than that.

I can flinch at his appeal to 'unity'. Despite its rhetorical flight, Obama's breakthrough 2004 convention speech flirts a little too much with the anti-political zeitgeist for my tastes. Yet I am increasingly convinced that Obama is doing something more nuanced and more complicated and - crucially - that he will be able to engage his audience of this. Today's speech was strongest on the need to build coalitions for social justice - and, moreover, coalitions which recognise that grievances can be real, and yet still compete with others which may have no less validity.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family

.... In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

Progressive politics has space to breathe only when it can bind these together so that coalitions for change defeat a battle of competitive grievances. Ever since the passage of the civil rights act, dividers have had better tunes than uniters. Obama is often accused of naivety. But there is a central strategic logic to an argument about how to call time on the politics of Nixon's piano strategy, of Lee Atwater and Willie Horton, of Dubya and Karl Rove. Progressives have been consistently outmanouvered by the mobilisation of white grievance politics.

I think Obama would, if President, be more likely than any President since LBJ to start a national debate about class disadvantage and the American dream. (Though the post-LBJ competition is not so strong). The interaction between class and race was a key theme of today's speech, albeit in a minor key.

Again, it is worth acknowledging that this language that pledges that "It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams" could be empty or substantive. The least conventional part of today's speech was Obama's explanation of Wright's anger. I can't imagine his campaign advisers were so keen on this, yet it added a depth and truth which the conventional politics of distancing and moving on would not have done.

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

What Obama again demonstrates here is that he has an unusual ability to empathise with those with whom he does not agree. (Normally, that extends to conservatives; today, more riskily, to his left). This talent offers the opportunity to offer his audience a defence of democratic politics itself and the opportunity to participate in it. The quest for consensus is not simply for consensus' sake. There was an excellent description of this in a response to George Packer's New Yorker blog.

His instincts are not confrontational, but rather dialogic. It’s not so much that he seeks consensus (although he does) as that he seeks to instill a commitment and desire for some solution to, or resolution of, a problem which the group now “owns.” Perhaps more significantly, Obama tries to get people to recognize that they will not succeed in achieving all of their policy goals, that not all solutions or resolutions will satisfy everyone, and that we can accept solutions with which we strongly disagree, so long as we are heard and respected in the political process.

The Wright-Obama contrast also animates Shelby Steele's analysis of 'challenger' and 'bargainer' strategies on race. Yet Steele has got Obama wrong. Steele wrote (again) in today's Washington Post that:

No matter his ultimate political fate, there is already enough pathos in Barack Obama to make him a cautionary tale. His public persona thrives on a manipulation of whites (bargaining), and his private sense of racial identity demands both self-betrayal and duplicity. His is the story of a man who flew so high, yet neglected to become himself.

But this charge of opportunism, of cynicism, is misplaced. Obama is himself. Reading Obama's Dreams of My Father, published thirteen years ago, I was struck by the authenticity of his personal journey, how he reconciles himself to his family history, to being black and mixed race, how he is attracted by a range of different ways of dealing or not dealing with race, and how he comes to forge a sense of self and a set of views which are very directly reflected in his campaign message over a decade later.

That rootednesss lies behind the most impressive thing about this rookie campaign: how Obama has consistently turned every challenge and attack into a chance to reaffirm, to strengthen the core, consistent message of his campaign.

It was because today's speech rang true in its claim to be bigger than the politics of a presidential campaign that it will probably turn out to be good political strategy and tactics too. (Contrast Bill Clinton's 1992 challenge to Sister Souljah: he was right, and it was good politics, but how transparently tactically driven that was).

I've been consistently stressing that that this race isn't over. (Before Ohio and Texas, I was prepared to offer Obama the garlands of having won the campaign; but not the nomination).

But I feel ready to stick my neck out now. In two or three days time, I expect the conventional wisdom will be that this Philadelphia speech was the moment when it became clear that Obama had clinched the nomination. And - this time, just for once in this campaign year - I think the commentariat are going to turn out to be right.

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As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.