by Jeremy Young | 1/26/2008 01:39:00 PM
[Cross-posted at Politics and Letters, MyDD, My Left Wing, and Open Left.]

My new hero, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, advances one of the most interesting arguments I've seen on why Obama is so equivocal in debates. Unlike most supporters of Obama, Harris-Lacewell has been following and supporting the Illinois Senator since he was elected to the State Senate nearly twelve years ago. According to Harris-Lacewell, Obama's rhetoric has changed because of the difficulties Obama faces in attempting to talk across the black-white divide:

Barack has already laid down what will be remembered as some of the most important pieces of American rhetoric in the 21st century: his “Joshua Generation” speech in Selma this summer; his triumphant victory address on the night of the Iowa caucuses; and his inspirational “Yes We Can!” speech on the night of the New Hampshire upset. While these moments of Barack’s scripted voice are both authentic and inspiring; his debate voice is cautious, halting, and decidedly uninspired. I think it has everything to do with race.




As I watch Obama and Clinton I am convinced that I am seeing one of the wages of whiteness in action: it is easier to talk across gender difference than to speak across the racial divide. Americans share almost no common vocabulary across race. As a public opinion researcher, I consistently find that the greatest perceptual, cognitive and emotional gaps are between the races. We just don’t see our world, think about our world, or feel about our world in similar ways. This is doesn’t mean that all whites or all blacks see, think, or feel the same ways as one another, but it does means that there are greater shared understanding within these groups than across them. I think Obama lost voice happens because he is shouting across this deep racial chasm in American politics. He stops and waits for the words because he is actively censoring, updating and listening to every word he says before he says it. Politicians are already masters of self censorship (except Joe Biden of course), but with Barack the stakes are higher. He is trying to multiracial coalition, which means he is trying to build a coalition of people who speak different languages. In debates he is constantly trying to talk and translate at the same time. I think it ends up making him look unsure of himself. Barack maybe many things, but he is not unsure of himself!

I have seen Obama campaign twice before: first in 2000 against Bobby Rush and then in 2004 against Alan Keyes. In these intra-racial battles he was sometimes too wonkish. He often had flashes of arrogance and sometimes even looked vaguely bored. But he never stumbled and hesitated the way he does now. I have even noticed that Barack has developed a physical tick of pressing two fingers against his mouth when Hillary speaks. It is as if he is holding in the words and willing himself not to talk. I believe this has everything to do with the difficulty of trying to speak across race.


It's an interesting argument, though I'm not certain I agree, mostly because of the nature of Obama's 2004 race. I mean, seriously, Alan Keyes versus Obama was an intra-racial battle? I'm not questioning Keyes' blackness, but I dare anyone to name a single black Illinoisian who saw Keyes as "one of them." (His family doesn't count, since they're from Maryland.) Keyes' appeal, as I see it, was entirely to conservative whites. We could go into detail about whether whites are more or less likely to vote Republican based on the race of the Republican candidate -- this was an issue, notably, in the 2006 Maryland Senate race -- but the key here is that Keyes and Obama were almost certainly competing before an audience of white voters, as black voters had nearly uniformly decided for Obama the minute Keyes entered the race.

There's also the fact that Alan Keyes is, well, Alan Keyes. While he wasn't considered a disgrace when he entered the race -- he did tolerably well in the 2000 Presidential race and hadn't yet disowned his daughter for being a lesbian -- Obama, who had previously expected to face first millionaire self-funder Jack Ryan and then legendary football coach Mike Ditka, certainly didn't think there was much chance that he could lose to Keyes. It's quite possible that the lack of a close race between the two men allowed Obama to show his true colors. Similarly, in his 2000 race against Congressman Bobby Rush, Obama wasn't facing a close race, though in this case it was because the Congressman defeated him convincingly in the primary. Obama's State Senate seat wasn't in jeopardy (it was an off-year for legislative elections), and his chances of defeating Rush were almost nil -- so there was little at stake for him in the run. He could afford to be himself.

On the other hand, there is a campaign in Obama's history that provides a parallel to his current race in terms of how much was at stake for Obama: his 2004 U.S. Senate primary against State Comptroller Dan Hynes and millionaire Blair Hull. Ultimately, Hynes and Hull killed each other off with scads of negative campaigning on both sides, allowing Obama to coast to the nomination with a majority of the vote, but from the beginning of the campaign the outcome was far from certain (Hull led most polls until barely a month before the primary). Unfortunately, Harris-Lacewell doesn't mention this campaign, and I didn't follow it closely enough at the time to pick up on whether Obama was tough and direct or whether he stuttered uncertainly. But if we did have more information on this campaign, would it really matter? Like the 2008 race, Obama's 2004 nomination fight was both highly competitive and fought against two white candidates. If he proved to be more cautious in that earlier race, we would still not know whether it was because of "the wages of whiteness," as Harris-Lacewell argues, or because of his cautiousness in competitive campaigns, as I believe.

Whichever of us is right, it's unlikely Obama's newfound caution will leave us anytime soon. In fact, according to either theory, it will probably increase if he's elected President. In the White House, Obama will be playing on an international stage dominated by whites, speaking to a largely white audience, competing for policies against a largely white Congress. He'll also be keenly aware that the stakes are even higher than usual for our first black President: everything he says and does will be scrutinized intensely by both the media and the American public. If these things produce timidity in Obama now, imagine what will happen when he is President. Anyone hoping for a return to the old, fearless Obama of State Senate days is probably hoping in vain.

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5 Comments:


Blogger eOz on 1/27/2008 12:43 PM:

I was with my son and his friends when Obama announced at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, last February. In that event, I saw these college students go from political agnostics to true believers, and that fervor has stuck. At our caucus, I stood for Kucinich (there were seven of us in a room of over 400). After the first round, my son and his friends came over and said, "OK, Dad, you've had your fun. Now come on over to Obama."

They were giddy in their zeal. They were motivated to endure the formalism of party mechanics to pull together and believe, for the first time, in a candidate. It was contageous.

I find it interesting Caroline Kennedy is endorsing Obama in the New York Times today with the idea that finally we had someone who could speak to the nation like her father did. In his candidacy, so many people see someone who can speak with a freedom and a passion that seems to cast aside all the parsing and serious discussion. There's a freedom in that for them that, unfortunately, I cannot fully share.

But I do appreciate its power. Rhetoric trumps anything else when employed by a master. It is always hard to tell whether the master is being honest or being artful. Reagan still burns in my mind as an example of the latter and not the former. But my children, our children, don't carry that baggage.

When Truman gave the speech at the convention that smashed through that wall, he became unstoppable. When FDR innovated the fireside chats, he reached into each living room and pulled people free to dare things they could not dare before. When Kennedy called forth a desire to serve each other that other politicians did not even believe was there, he left his peers behind.

Obama has the art, and in the People lies the power, to believe there is a future again. After thirty years of "you can't", he offers "we can". The power of the message is palpable. The consequences of that message are unknowable. It is possible he holds the keys to a transformational shift in politics which has lain fallow, awaiting a sure hand and a keen insight.

In so many debates, Obama has struggled to take the stage, and has failed. His policies are vague in the details. He seems to accomodate language and ideas from the Republicans. He doesn't break free from ideas like health insurance to seize the high ground of single-payor health care. But it is probably not that he is against the highest aspiration, but that he believes he can bring those things about only if he can be embued with the power of the bully pulpit and, with the cynical power players in the room, put the squeeze on them to transcend and deliver.

Reagan used the bully pulpit thus, and Obama is certainly a student of how Reagan did that. He wants to change the arc of politics, not sully himself with the details of it. And he may just be right.

Kucinich is the counterpoint: wonkishly detailed legislation laid out for all to see and villify. Strident, lecturing tone berating his peers to follow. Obama commits himself to nothing he doesn't have to, because that committment would limit the power he could wield rhetorically when he is in the seat of power. He is loathe to give up any ground he does not have to.

It is almost sad to see the Clintons struggle against that strategy. The competent professionals slavoring to get back into power to finish what they started, their urgent desire is so obvious. They have given away their ideas and have to defend them. I have no doubt Hillary would be a competent President, restaffing the government with professionals again, and that our Government would be better for it. But Obama could have the pick of the same professionals, and the added freedom of being unknown and being able to set a direction unknowable.

It's a powerful thing, this path. It is risky. It is audacious. It has the highest risk of failure. But it has a slim chance of being the next vista of American politics. In Obama there is a sense of the future again. A future Americans like, when they feel themselves capable of it. Vast. Unknowable. Uncertain. But where a new quality of life in which all Americans will live differently and better than now is possible.

I do not support any candidate yet. I will support any of them; whichever one wins the Democratic nomination. I will not trust any of them to do everything right. But my son and his friends and so many others, if they can believe and will come out to vote, can lead the nation into a real future, and I have to bow to that possibility. I have to grudgingly admire it. I certainly enjoy having them willing to argue through the details this old codger throws at them with a smile and a confidence that I can feel the pull of history's river flowing again and will bend to it and join them in the journey.

It felt good. It felt right. It felt like America again. I won't say where I ended up standing at the caucus, because it doesn't matter. Seeing my son and his friends and all the Obama supporters laughing and hollerin' and confident in a future we did not deliver to them as we should have was the most important thing to report from that caucus night. They believe, and I have to believe in them. It's contageous.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/27/2008 10:04 PM:

Magnificent, eOz. But I can't agree. I think Obama is selling not art but artifice. His rhetoric of unity is an opiate designed to make young people believe that if only we could all get along, everything will be all right. And you know what? It won't. There are people in this country with whom we cannot get along. There are people in this country we must smash and end and destroy. The Ken Lays and the lobbyists and the Donald Rumsfelds will be happy to sit down and talk with us and then go back and destroy our country for personal gain, just as they have done for centuries. We're at war with these people as we speak; why in bloody hell can't Obama see it?

As I said last month:

But there can be no civility or compromise with a president who spies on American citizens without a warrant, who tortures suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, who manipulates and fires U.S. Attorneys in order to politicize their positions, or who pardons an aide who has outed a CIA agent. We do not need Obama to heal the rift between good and evil, or to bind up the nation’s wounds with Bush’s venom still in her bloodstream. Obama’s balms of civility and bipartisanship may lull Americans into complacency, but they seem ill-equipped to end the outrages and injustices of the current administration’s policies and restore America to moral solvency. Obama has given us no indication that he will exercise the bold, far-reaching, and, yes, partisan leadership that will be necessary to undo the travesties of the past seven years.

We had a candidate once who would have done this. He was Howard Dean, and he was rejected by the American people for being too passionate. This year, no such candidate has arisen, and I have no interest in supporting someone who is only a pale copy of what we really need.

 

Blogger Lisa Pease on 1/27/2008 11:19 PM:

It's worth noting that even Howard Dean wasn't Howard Dean, meaning, when you get to know a candidate you idealize, inevitably, you will become disappointed.

I have no illusions about Obama. I'm not under the influence of any rhetorical kool-aid. But I see him as the only one to acknowledge that, if we can't lead the right as well as the left, we're not going to get anywhere. And he's so correct on this point.

The fact that Caroline Kennedy, who historically has stayed as far from politics as she can, is incredibly meaningful. Even Ted Kennedy's endorsement, which is huge, is not as big. I've been calling people in my precinct, and they all say the same thing. "Caroline Kennedy?" They gasp. "She never does this." people who had written Obama off as a rhetorical puppet are realizing there must be something else there.

As a historian, I hope you and others here do some digging into Obama's own history. I think you'd be surprised how much depth there is, how much useful and difficult legislation he has crafted and passed, in some cases under enormous odds. He took on causes that were not popular, but were necessary, like Campaign Finance Reform - something candidates are nearly unanimously adverse to addressing.

Give him a chance. Like you say, he's no Howard Dean, but like I say, neither was Dean.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/27/2008 11:24 PM:

Lisa, I'm well aware that there's substance to Obama's career and to him as a person. My problem is that I disagree fundamentally with his idea of political unity. I don't want a uniter; I want a divider, like Dean. No amount of historical background is going to convince me that Obama is something other than what he says he is.

 

Blogger eOz on 1/27/2008 11:53 PM:

As I have been struggling to finish some essays, I have become increasingly aware that we are being forced to work in spite of the people who can get elected. Somehow we need to shake off the sense that a Presidential candidate can embody and prevail in what is necessary.

The unitary executive theory of governance must be repudiated in law as well as fact. The People must rise to the challenge of wrestling control of the government from those who seek more power for the Federal government and weaken the state and local governments. Our legislators must step forward and assert their role in a new balance with the executive branch.

Obama does not address any of these things. None of the candidates do. They are "holding their cards" just in case they need the extraordinary powers. They should repudiate them and seek to quench them for future Administrations. This lot is not that -- none of them. Dean, and Kucinich in his wonkish sort of way, advocate a return to real, honorable partisanship in which we engage in the battle of ideas and enact policies which empower people -- and take the risk the People will respond in Their wisdom. That is quite a leap of faith for the "modern" politician.

But it is a leap we must make. If we can shake off the expectation this will be done for us just because it would be right and engage politics with a civic-minded seriousness, those who have subverted our Constitution would be brought to heel and made to act in our mutual interest.

You have reason to withhold any sense of support from any of these candidates. Dean was never allowed to enter the crucible and we may never know what he could have delivered in that nexus of power. But he did move ahead with the 50-state strategy, and that was a start. Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, is another leader emerging at other levels of government. Netroots candidates are getting elected.

These pressures, these advances, are the most important force for change now, not our Presidential candidates. This attention to civics by more and more citizens is the most important shift, if we can sustain and expand it. That expansion will pressure whomever is elected to pay attention and attend to changing the arc of our common history away from the hyperpartisans and pariahs toward the diverse and practical sensibility of our better angels.

The young people, now sensitized, must be encouraged to go further and push harder, not to assume someone elected will do for them what really needs to be done. It is exciting to see them discover their voice. The hard work lays ahead, keeping that voice alive and honing it into a mandate for progressive policies, sensible solutions and decentralization and rebalancing of powers within and among the branches of government.

The real work is just beginning. You are right to point that out.