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The inexplicable phenomenon that is Obama

Local Commentary

Posted: March 30, 2008 3:51 a.m.
Updated: May 31, 2008 5:02 a.m.
If you have been hunkered down under a rock for the last year, let me re-introduce you to civilization: Barack Obama is like no presidential candidate that we have ever seen before.

Listen to the resume. Want competence? Not only a Harvard graduate, magna cum laude is all, but elected president of the venerable Harvard Law Review. Translation: the creme de la creme of Harvard legal intelligentsia.

Want eloquence? Heard his 2004 DNC or 2007 Jefferson/Jackson Dinner speeches? He transcends names like Reagan and Clinton. Some put him on par with the king of Camelot, our 35th president.

Want inspiration? The junior Illinois senator has enflamed a passion and galvanized a movement that habitually seats 10,000 and 15,000 in venues nationwide. From Iowa to Georgia, his candidacy has upset the normal balance of political theater by unleashing a hunger for revolution in Washington.

Yet competence, eloquence, and inspiration fall short of explaining a candidacy that has ripened into a global phenomenon. Ever wanting to put matters of race behind us, we cannot ignore that the color of Barack Obama's skin, in large measure, is what has caused politicians and pundits alike to bestow a near-sacredness on his campaign.

Complete contradiction
Much like Jimmy Carter did for Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush's ground-level approval ratings, Middle East vexations, and economic woes are pushing the American people to demand wholesale change.

American sentiment toward the administration has cornered the market on fatigue and resentment. In Barack Obama, that sentiment has found relief.

Eclipsing the Gloria Steinem-backed, glass ceiling surge of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama's mass appeal is largely due to being the complete contradiction of George W. Bush. More than being in the right race at the right time, Obama represents all that Washington is not.

Take the said competence, eloquence and inspiration and wrap them in black skin and you have the epitome of change for the dissatisfied voter. Bush's scourge is this black candidate's windfall.

"Change" arguments alone, often the balm for political success, cannot shoulder the credit for Obama's historic appeal. Carter waving his Bible and Reagan asking, "Are you better off now?" both brought electoral success. Yet not even Reagan regularly spoke to 10,000 or 15,000 at campaign rallies. Nor did Carter awaken peoples' hopes as Obama has.

John Edwards' left-of-left platform promised monumental change from the Bush policies. For all of Cheney's hawkishness and Bush's corporate ties, Edwards' dovishness and union affinity were every bit the match. Yet where is he today?

And what of Bill Richardson? This first viable Hispanic candidate pledged detailed and articulate economic and foreign-policy changes built upon an enviable resume as former UN ambassador, energy secretary, congressman, and current governor of New Mexico. Yet where is he today?

Barack Obama has promised substantially less detailed policy changes than Edwards and Richardson. Their pledges would, thus far, impact the economy, foreign policy, and all manner of social issues far deeper than Obama's comparatively stunted promises. Nevertheless, the words "change" and "Obama" have become synonymous in America.

The change synonymous with Barack Obama, that which stirs media bias as a shield, makes nondescript the campaigns of worthy opponents because he is the picture of anti-Washington. Competence and eloquence are nothing new to Washington. Remember Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton?

But voters perceive a near infinite newness or change in what Obama offers - change at a deeper level.
He gives occasion to that thinking because here is a black candidate who has never sought to be "the black candidate." The underlying racial hostility that marked the campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton is lost on Barack Obama.

That inherently broadens his appeal and helps to create his viability as a black candidate. Voters also all but assume a thinking and set of experiences unlike any candidates' before because of his racially and culturally diverse heritage - a thinking and set of experiences that mirrors a melting pot.

Roll of the dice?
These have been the stepping stones for Obama's opening to historic appeal. Without them, heads would not have initially turned, so that a speech at the 2004 DNC would have been a non-issue.

Yet I wonder if buying into the hype really is a roll of the dice? All things being equal, if the senator were white, would he be this phenomenon? But what equals all that he brings wrapped in black skin?

Andre Hollings is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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