Finally, it is morning in America.
A Columbia- and Harvard-educated biracial senator from Illinois is preparing to take the oath of office in the most celebrated changing of the guard in our history. He identifies as an African American, his wife is black and fine, his children are mocha-colored and adorable, and his sensibilities are undeniably progressive. He has accomplished something many Americans thought they would never live to see, and millions who’ve witnessed it have been moved to tears.
Yes, a 47-year-old African American will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation in the world, having beaten a badly splintered Republican ticket featuring a war hero and the most famous hockey mom in America. The Republicans pulled out all of the stops, even stealing Obama’s battle cry of “Change,” battering the Democrat with every charge they could muster including the preposterous accusation of being a “socialist,” hoping to scare the voters. They did not succeed. While McCain slugged it out in the clinches, Obama played rope-a-dope and accentuated the positive for 21 months.
He was able to rise from relative obscurity to world icon because of his personal history and temperament. With family roots in Kenya, Ireland, Indonesia, Hawaii and Kansas — and Ivy League sensibilities tempered by community organizing in the political tumult that is Chicago — Barack Hussein Obama demonstrated that he is the very embodiment of the emerging multi-culti coalition.
What does his astonishing victory say about America in 2008?
Rejecting the ‘fight, fight, fight’ mentality
Let’s start with the obvious. With over 350 electoral votes and a clear popular majority, Obama’s victory means that the nation has rejected the 1980s Reagan-Bush laissez faire approach to business. It has rejected the Bush administration’s first-strike doctrine. It has rejected officially sanctioned lying. It has rejected the “fight, fight, fight” mentality. It has rejected the “team of mavericks” concept with its inherent contradictions. And, it has rejected the spectacle of a McCain-Palin administration wherein the vice president excites the conservative base while waiting to become president.
From a historical and cultural perspective, we lack the vocabulary to articulate precisely what it means to have a president whose DNA and personal experience is emblematic of a new century, and a newly emerging society. We have had similar transitions in our history before, but none so meaningful. Abraham Lincoln was the first “Western” president. William McKinley was the first president of the 20th century and the last president to serve in the Civil War. FDR was the first president to struggle with a major disability. JFK became the first Catholic president.
But Barack Obama is a feast of firsts: the first black president raised by a white family, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, who was elected by a freshly minted demographic coalition of white, black, Latino, young and ethnically diverse voters. He is the first to successfully politicize The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream, the first to have good friends who are Muslims, the first undeniably liberal president with the support of conservatives like Christopher Buckley. The list is nearly endless.
A contagion of hope
To his credit, Obama did what he said he would do: generate a contagion of hope that spread across the worldwide web and into people’s hearts. For citizens of color — who did not initially support Obama until he won the Iowa primary — Obama’s election is a moment of profound transformation. Quite simply, it means that the final racial barrier has fallen at the national level and that while racial hatred will always be a problem, it is no longer the problem.
Observers like to claim that Obama transcends race, but he has been forced to overcome race-related doubts about his qualifications in this election. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, for instance, made many African Americans sick to their stomachs. Not because of what the man said, because Wright’s sentiments have been repeated in many black churches, but because we recognized that Jeremiah Wright was being used to hijack the election and that white America’s fear of black radicalism was feeding the frenzy. McCain’s associations with shady characters — such as Charles Keating, who actually defrauded the government — never emerged as a campaign issue. Sarah Palin has long been associated with the Alaskan Independence Party, whose founder cursed the American flag. Yet somehow, these stories didn’t provoke the kind of outbursts from white Americans that marked the Rev. Wright story.
Through all of this dissembling and subterfuge, Obama remained coolly focused on his goal of uniting those who for too long have been divided.
The pop cultural grace note
And there is this pop cultural grace note: the quintessential chill orientation for which Obama is known represents the 21st century rebirth of the cool, a largely African invention called Itutu in ancient Nigeria. Itutu came to the United States in the stoic and steely attitude of black slaves and became a driving force for many blues-based genres like jazz, rock and hip-hop. You can see that music in Obama’s walk, you can hear it in his talk, and you can see it in his left-handed jump shot. It is the persona he uses to mask the enormous heart nurtured by his late grandmother, but no matter what he does, that heart shines through.
For many white Americans, Obama’s election is a triumphant acknowledgement that the old notions of race are quickly dying and that it is finally time to come together. Although some were uncomfortable with Obama’s lack of experience, they were able to discern his fundamental values through the prism of his leadership. Many middle-aged white Americans who supported Obama heard in his message the clarion call of a movement led by a more idealistic generation, and they decided to vote for him because he is black, because he is biracial, because he repudiates the politics of the past, because he asked for our help.
Not that all is well racially in this country. With the exception of Virginia and North Carolina, the American Confederacy is still intact south of the Mason Dixon line. Obama could not crack the states of the Deep South, even those with large African American populations. Paradoxically, these are perhaps the poorest states in the nation, the ones that repeatedly vote against their own interests, and the ones that had little reason to embrace McCain-Palin except out of racial and cultural spite.
A pragmatic streak
So, while hundreds of millions around the world are celebrating Obama’s victory, he has a pragmatic streak that compels him to keep working. He knows he cannot count on the absolute support of far too many of his fellow citizens. He understands that this nation faces the most severe challenges in our history and that he dare not fail. By now we are all familiar with those challenges. What we do not yet know is how Obama will approach them.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best selling book, “Team of Rivals,” documents Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of three of his most fierce competitors to his first presidential cabinet. I believe that Obama’s instincts are similar to Lincoln’s. I do not mean that he will lead from the center, because the times call for radical change. Instead, you can expect to see President Obama cajole the opposition into doing what is necessary to support the majority of Americans, not the elites. Like Lincoln, Obama’s ego is anything but fragile, and he has the uncanny ability to challenge his opponents while appearing conciliatory. This may be among his greatest gifts: the courage to take a stand without being arrogant or doctrinaire.
Those who paved the way
Finally, it is worth remembering those who came before Obama and paved the way for this day. While much of America would like to write off unpopular figures like Jesse Jackson, it is a fact that without Jackson’s previous presidential bids, Obama’s candidacy would have been all but impossible. The man who cradled Dr. King’s shattered skull in his arms in 1968 could be seen openly weeping in Chicago at Obama’s postelection rally. Maybe that’s because Jesse Jackson believed just as passionately as Dr. King did in these words delivered at the 1963 March on Washington:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
“One day” has now arrived.
Syl Jones is a Minnesota playwright and essayist.