I’ve never been an Obama supporter. I’ve known him since the very beginning of his political career, which was his campaign for the seat in my state senate district in Chicago. He struck me then as a vacuous opportunist, a good performer with an ear for how to make white liberals like him. I argued at the time that his fundamental political center of gravity, beneath an empty rhetoric of hope and change and new directions, is neoliberal.
His political repertoire has always included the repugnant stratagem of using connection with black audiences in exactly the same way Bill Clinton did—i.e., getting props both for emoting with the black crowd and talking through them to affirm a victim-blaming “tough love” message that focuses on alleged behavioral pathologies in poor black communities. Because he’s able to claim racial insider standing, he actually goes beyond Clinton and rehearses the scurrilous and ridiculous sort of narrative Bill Cosby has made infamous.
It may be instructive to look at the outfit where he did his “community organizing,” the invocation of which makes so many lefties go weak in the knees. My understanding of the group, Developing Communities Project, at the time was that it was simply a church-based social service agency. What he pushed as his main political credential then, to an audience generally familiar with that organization, was his role in a youth-oriented voter registration drive. The Obama campaign has even put out a misleading bio of Michelle Obama, representing her as having grown up in poverty on the South Side, when, in fact, her parents were city workers, and her father was a Daley machine precinct captain.
This fabrication, along with those embroideries of the candidate’s own biography, may be standard fare, the typical log cabin narrative. However, in Obama’s case, the license taken not only underscores Obama’s more complex relationship to insider politics in Daley’s Chicago; it also underscores how much this campaign depends on selling an image rather than substance.
There is also something disturbingly ritualistic and superficial in the Obama camp’s young minions’ enthusiasm. Paul Krugman noted months ago that the Obamistas display a cultish quality in the sense that they treat others’ criticism or failure to support their icon as a character flaw or sin. The campaign even has a stock conversion narrative, which has been recycled in print by such normally clear-headed columnists as Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt: the middle-aged white woman’s report of not having paid much attention to Obama early on, but having been won over by the enthusiasm and energy of their adolescent or twenty-something daughters. (A colleague recently reported having heard this narrative from a friend, citing the latter’s conversion at the hands of her eighteen year old. I observed that three short years ago the daughter was likely acting the same way about Britney Spears.)
Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, a Clinton supporter, noted that the Obama campaign advisers have tried to have it both ways on the race question. On the one hand, they present their candidate as a figure who transcends racial divisions and “brings us together”; on the other hand, they exhort us that we should support his candidacy because of the opportunity to “make history” (presumably by nominating and maybe electing a black candidate).
Increasingly, Obama supporters have been disposed to cry foul and charge racism at nearly any criticism of him, in steadily more extravagant rhetoric. The campaign’s accusation that the Clinton team made Obama look darker in a photo or video clip than he actually is—and what exactly are we to make of that as an accusation?—and the hysterically indignant reaction to Geraldine Ferraro’s statement that much of Obama’s success stems from the fact that “the country is caught up in the concept” of a black candidacy are no different from the campaign’s touting its “historic” character. Obama supporters fulsomely attacked even Clinton’s attempts to portray him as inexperienced, which is standard fare in political campaigns. They also charged that she was playing to racism. See most recently Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo’s characterization that she was “disrespecting” black people, a leftover canard from Jesse Jackson’s campaigns (which, lest amnesia overtake us, were also extolled as historic firsts).
The Jackson comparison points to one of Obama’s key contradictions: Like Jackson, he wants to appeal to blacks with the “it’s our time now” line, and to white liberals with that, as well as with the “I’m black in a different way from Jesse” qualifier and the religious conversion rhetoric. A friend said that Obama’s campaign, in stressing his appeal to rapturous children and liberal, glamorous yuppies, offers vicarious identification with these groups, as well as the chance to become sort of black in that ultra-safe and familiar theme park way.
I often tell my students that, even though Paul Wellstone was my good friend from college to his death and an individual for whom I always had great respect, no politician in this system is likely to be a person you’d want for your sister-in-law or brother-in-law. And, as many Progressive readers may know, I’m hardly a Clinton fan. I’m on record in last November’s issue as saying that I’d rather sit out the election entirely than vote for either her or Obama. At this point, though, I’ve decided that she’s the lesser evil in the Democratic race, for the following reasons: 1) Obama’s empty claims to being a candidate of progressive change and to embodying a “movement” that exists only as a brand will dissolve into disillusionment in either a failed campaign against McCain or an Obama Presidency that continues the politics he’s practiced his entire career; 2) his horribly opportunistic approach to the issues bearing on inequality—in which he tosses behaviorist rhetoric to the right and little more than calls to celebrate his success to blacks—stands to pollute debate about racial injustice whether he wins or loses the Presidency; 3) he can’t beat McCain in November.
Frankly, I suspect that Clinton can’t beat him either, but there’s no way that Obama will carry most of the states in November that he’s won in the primaries and caucuses. And, while it makes some liberals feel good to think that a majority of the American electorate could vote for a black Presidential candidate, we should keep in mind that the Republicans haven’t let one dog out of the kennel against him yet. The Jeremiah Wright contretemps is only the first bark.
Obama’s style of being all things to all people threatens to melt under the inescapable spotlight of a national campaign against a Republican. It’s like what brings on the downfall of really successful con artists: They get themselves onto a stage that’s so big that they can’t hide their contradictions anymore, and everyone finds out about the different stories they’ve told different people. And Obama’s belonging to Wright’s church in the first place was quite likely part of establishing a South Side bourgeois nationalist street cred because his political base was with Hyde Park/University of Chicago liberals and the foundation world.
For now, the Jeremiah Wright connection probably won’t hurt him too much, partly because the Republicans at this point mainly may want to keep him and Clinton bleeding each other as long as possible. And his Philadelphia compromise speech—a string of well-crafted and coordinated platitudes and hollow images worthy of an SUV commercial, grounded with the reassuring “acknowledgment” of blacks’ behavioral inadequacies—has gained him breathing room by holding out a vague promise of racial “reconciliation” that has appealed to centrist liberals ever since Booker T. Washington’s comparably eloquent 1895 accommodation to Southern white supremacy.
Obama gets credit for “opening a conversation” on race, for “taking the matter on squarely.” But he doesn’t really speak to what we ought to be doing to address the injustices, past and present, that he mentions. Despite all the babble about Obama’s transcendence, Obama persists in portraying black Americans as a stereotypical monolith: blacks feel x; whites feel y. And the trope of black “anger” is a tired chestnut that neither explains nor characterizes political grievances or aspirations. (By the way, Obama’s casting Wright’s alleged “anger” as generational is entirely consistent with his earlier praise of Ronald Reagan for sensing Americans’ desire to undo the “excesses” of the 1960s and 1970s.) Because he’s tried carefully to say enough of whatever the audiences he’s been speaking to at the time want to hear while leaving himself enough space later on to deny his intentions to leave that impression, his record represents precisely the “character” weakness the Republicans have exploited in every Democratic candidate since Dukakis: Another Dem trying to put things over on the American people.
Obama’s campaign has been very clever in carving out a strategy to amass Democratic delegate votes, but its momentum is in some ways a Potemkin construction—built largely on victories in states that no Democrat will win in November—that will fall apart under Republican pressure. And then where will we be?
Correction: Adolph Reed Jr. apologizes to Katha Pollitt for stating that her daughter influenced her to support Obama. Her daughter did no such thing.
Adolph Reed Jr. is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.