Barack Obama, the Great Fill-in-the-Blank Hope

As the 2004 US Presidential election season wound through the summer and fall, with all the attack ads, debates and sideshow diversions, as mainstream news media struggled to maintain its currency against the torrent of bloggers dissecting every nuance of every report, right up to Election Day, and amid the confusion over exit polls and the lingering reports of polling place malfeasance, only two things could be taken as certainties. One, America would remain bitterly divided no matter who it elected President. Two, the state of Illinois would send a skinny guy with a funny name to the US Senate.

In retrospect, it seems the height of folly that back in the spring, I wondered how much attention Barack Obama’s candidacy would receive. I had seen a couple of news reports about his race here and there, but I didn’t have any confidence that the rest of the country, especially the brothas and sistas in the street, would hear about him. Here was a young, well-educated black politician with big ideas, daring to leap from obscurity (the Illinois State Legislature) to Capitol Hill in a single bound.

Obama won the Democratic Senate primary, trouncing a crowded field with support that crossed every demographic in the book. In a campaign where black people seemed to be more of an afterthought than at any time since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a black man was running for the Senate, a body that had only seen three black members since the 1870s. In March and April, my fingers were crossed that black folk would hear about his run and offer their support, much as black dollars poured in from all over for Harvey Gantt’s unsuccessful 1990 North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms.

The first in-depth notoriety Obama received probably came as a result of a profile in The New Yorker (31 May 2004). William Finnegan recounted Obama’s remarkable background, which by now has entered the realm of political folklore. He was born to a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, and educated at Harvard Law School. He was earnest and articulate, the seeming embodiment of Public Enemy’s uber-brotha who could “teach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard” (“Don’t Believe the Hype”, 1988). Finnegan referred to Obama’s 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father (Times Books). I figured I’d have to troll the used bookstores to find a copy.

By the summer, all that semi-obscurity was history. First, Dreams from My Father was back on the shelves, in a paperback edition published by Three Rivers Press. Second, Obama’s path to victory seemed to be cleared when the presumptive Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race after certain embarrassing details from his divorce paperwork made the news. The Illinois Republican Party, either out of candidates at that late date, out of utter cluelessness, or both, imported the loony fringe element known as Alan Keyes from Maryland to fill the vacancy. Keyes’ appeal has always been restricted to the reddest of the red-staters (a curious phenomenon in that Keyes is black, but speaks the ultra-conservative lingo fluently); his presence in the race seemed to represent a big white flag of surrender.

But Obama didn’t enter the pop stratosphere until his magnetic speech on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in late July. That electric moment was the first time in my life I was ever captivated by a politician’s vision — not merely interested, not deeply studious, but out-and-out captivated by it — and apparently, I was not alone. Overnight Obama went from unknown quantity to rock star, the darling of the political press, and the new hope of a wide swath of disaffected Americans.

There were Democrats who saw Obama as a sign of new blood and vitality for a party that didn’t have many young stars in the pipeline, a candidate who could generate a level of passion its presidential candidate never quite matched. There were political moderates, seeing someone who genuinely seemed to be more interested in reaching people than reaching potential votes. And there were black Americans, daring to dream that grandest of all our American dreams: a black person in the White House.

The idea of a black president is on the lists of “firsts” for black Americans. For generations, we have felt the rush of pride whenever a black person became the first to achieve a rank previously denied to us, for whatever reason. These achievements range from the serious (first black big-city mayor, Carl Stokes in Cleveland, 1967; first black governor, Douglas Wilder in Virginia, 1989) to the considerably less so (first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, 1983; first black Super Bowl quarterback, Doug Williams, 1988). In the 57 years since Jackie Robinson desegregated major league baseball in 1947, we have seen a black person break through just about every symbolic barrier in politics, business and culture: except that of President of the United States of America.

One wonders if indeed it will ever happen, given that whoever succeeds will have to have an appeal that transcends race in a country that may or may not ever get around to resolving its conflicted racial issues. Jesse Jackson came closest in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns, but he fell short of the Democratic nomination both times. Given the controversy the very mention of his name sparks in many corners of the populace, it’s difficult to imagine how well Jackson could have fared in a general election. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine how any black candidate would fare. Would white Americans vote for a candidate who best articulated their hopes and dreams if said candidate were black? Conventional wisdom (read: the success rate of blacks running for Congress from majority-white districts) has always held that answer to be “no”. Obama’s speech at the convention gave millions of black Americans license to think that that answer could, someday in their lifetimes, in the right circumstance, change to “yes”.

And so the money poured in to Obama’s coffers, above and beyond his own fundraising. With essentially token opposition from Keyes, Obama was free to capitalize on his ascending national profile. He lent his star power (and a few extra bucks) to other Senate candidates and the Kerry-Edwards ticket. Everywhere he went, people flocked to get a glimpse of the politician who stole their hearts with just one speech.

Obama came to Philadelphia in late September to help Representative Joe Hoeffel in his Senate race against the venerable Arlen Spector. As soon as Obama arrived at LOVE Park in downtown Philly, a buzz swirled among the gathering. Reporters positioned themselves for impromptu press conferences, campaigners held out Kerry signs for Obama to autograph, everyone was snapping pictures. His publisher will be gratified to know that he signed several copies of his book at that event.

Obama looked a little fatigued from the wear-and-tear of campaigning, but once he started his address to the get-out-the-vote rally, he was theirs and they were his. He repeated some of the same themes from his convention speech, about the need to speak to issues of economic security and hope for the future. He recounted tales from his travels throughout Illinois, into areas where the Ku Klux Klan once held sway. He spoke of our interconnectedness and mutual obligations. He told us he stood “on the shoulders of four little girls”, the four killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. He quoted Dr. King about how the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, then brought everyone back to the hear-and-now by adding, “but it doesn’t bend alone”.

Oh by the way: he did all this without notes.

Afterwards, the crowd wanted yet another piece of him. There were no babies for him to kiss, but a homeless man cut through the crowd and asked him for a couple of bucks, which Obama dutifully fished out from his pocket. Hoeffel, the intended beneficiary of all this love, ended up slinking away from the Obamamania going on, looking like an accountant who needed to wind up a long lunch and get back to work. (Alas, Hoeffel lost his race).

And so it went throughout the rest of the fall, with Obama cruising to victory while attempting to bring along others by his coattails. That is a remarkable feat in American politics: first-time candidates for major office aren’t supposed to even have coattails. But it wasn’t just other Senate candidates hanging on for the ride, of course, and that’s the dance Obama will be doing in the months ahead.

Obama began his official tenure as America’s most prominent black politician by saying that he would not be running for President in 2008. He and his staff said it over and over again, more forcefully than they had said it during the Senate campaign. It became part of his shtick as he made the talk show circuit after the election: I’m a rookie Senator in the minority party, my first priority will be to find out where the bathrooms are.

But that didn’t, and won’t, stop people from fantasizing about Obama running for the office of President, anyway. From the aforementioned disaffected Democrats looking for anything remotely close to a ray of hope after Kerry’s loss, to the aforementioned black folk, even to the good people of Kenya. One young Kenyan told the New York Times that some folks there hope Obama can get an airport built so he can fly to his remote ancestral village directly from Washington (quick: get this man a crash course in the realities of American politics). (“Illinois Democrat Wins Kenyan Hearts, in a Landslide”, 25 October 2004)

In a few weeks, the luster will drop, the spotlights will move on, and Barack Obama will roll up his sleeves and go about the business of the Senate. His first priority, of course, will be to Illinois, to learning how to bring home the bacon for his state. As he learns how to navigate the choppy waters of national politics, he will find and take advantage of opportunities to advance his issues, to figure out what he can get done where, and how. But he won’t be anywhere near as anonymous as his fellow first-termers in the Hill. Rest assured that the Democratic Party will call upon his magnetism, which capitalizes on his racial status and transcends it at the same time, to bolster its own sagging fortunes.

Obama has already done a lot for the varied hopes of millions of Americans. And those hopes will remain invested in his fortune and progress, at least until the 2008 election cycle begins in a week or so. The “when are you running for President?” question will not go away just because he wants it to, and I hope he’s grounded and gracious enough to accept that. He represents too much to too many people. No one has ever walked the tightrope between dreams and realities at this high a level, before. So far, Obama has not only dared to attempt it, he’s made that walk look easy. Now comes the hard part.