The weirdest thing about the news coverage of Barack Obama’s impending inauguration – or maybe, the weirdest thing about my view of Obama – is that every time the media refers to Obama as “the first black president,” I’m somewhat taken aback. I mean, of course I’m aware that it’s tremendously significant that Obama, as an African-American, was elected president…but for me, it’s so much more present in my mind that he is, say, a thoughtful man, an intelligent man, a reasonable man, that the fact that he’s black recedes into the background. (Of course – as nearly everyone reading this probably already knows – I’m not black, and I suspect that if I were, Obama’s blackness – and the significance of his being elected to the highest office in the nation as an African-American – would be far more present in my mind.)
It’s not that I “forgot” he was black…or that I’m “colorblind”… But for myself, at least, once the primaries began to shake out and it was clear I’d end up choosing between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the qualities that stood out for me in making Obama the superior choice loomed independent of his race…and in fact, the qualities that turned me against Clinton (I was never exactly in her camp…although I surely would have voted for her had she been the Democratic nominee) were related to Obama’s race: the way her campaign used similar subtly racist demarcators to position herself for white, working class Americans as “normal” and “known” versus Obama’s purported status as political outlier, cultural elitist, and untested unknown. The way those attributions tied cleanly to certain unpleasant racial notions, and the way Clinton attempted to exploit certain voters’ discomfort with Obama, repulsed me from her campaign…and even though I was aware of the extent to which her campaign (and, of course, far less subtly, McCain’s) worked racial metaphors and assumptions, I still found myself weighing Obama’s qualities on a scale that somehow all but erased race as having any input.
I should say too that the views of certain conservatives about Obama…the ranting about “socialism,” say – seem to me to be not much about race, and more about a generational or cultural shift, of which Bill Clinton was the first signifier, in which an older, hierarchical order gives way to a more egalitarian, inclusive order. Race is certainly among those qualities leveled by this new order…but more important is the way it assumes such issues as being negotiable. Contrast that to Cheney et al….who clearly believe, it seems to be, in a natural order of things wherein some people (almost invariably, “some men”) are simply better suited to rule than other peoples…and certain surface traits, seemingly unrelated to leadership potential, function to predict leadership capabilities (or, maybe more accurately, such peoples’ ability to get along and go along with the old, entrenched orders).
The simplest, shortest way to sum all this up is that I’ve always viewed Obama politically – as a politician, as someone whose politics were far more amenable, far more practical, than Bush’s…and, even though I knew those politics were far to the right of mine (and who knows how much of his rightward positioning is genuine and how much is politicking?), the fact that he seems the sort of man to weigh evidence rather than rely on faith or prefab labels, that in itself is enormously hopeful. I have no doubt he’ll disappoint me sometimes, perhaps frequently…but I also have little doubt that when he does so, he’ll have reasons for it, reasons which will either be spelled out or be essentially transparent. He is not doctrinaire by any means…but neither is he unprincipled. And it’s that latter quality that most recommends him to be: though he recognizes politics as the art of compromise, he realizes also that artless and thoroughgoing compromise is not politics, but surrender…something else entirely.