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A transformational man for a transformational moment

Supporters packed into Chicago's Grant Park cheer Barack Obama's historic moment Tuesday night.
REUTERS/John Gress
Supporters packed into Chicago’s Grant Park cheer Barack Obama’s historic moment Tuesday night.

There is the person. There is the moment. They need each other for the spark of history.

The person is the Everyman, and he is the Otherman. Today, he is President-elect Barack Obama, the black guy with the white grandmother, the Kenyan from Chicago, the community organizer with the Harvard diploma, the city dude who sweeps Iowa by storm.

He is the challenger of the political establishment who expropriates its most powerful marketing tools: discipline, money and the Internet. In so doing, he becomes the Leader of the Free World.

Give him now a time in which to step forward, where the weight of America’s most painful past, the raw dissatisfaction of the last eight years and the longed-for promise of its future collide.

It’s an intersection where stereotypes are smashed and the rest of us are ready to be led.

“He speaks to the deeper parts of a country that wants to be better than it’s been and knows it can be better,” said Minneapolis R.T. Rybak, an early Obama supporter. “America has such a deep spirit that hasn’t been called on. Policy matters enormously, but so does inspiration.”

Today, the man and the moment are bound together, which is why the adjective “transformational” has been attached to Obama like so many campaign buttons to a zealot’s funny  hat.

Gen. Colin Powell called him a “transformational figure” last month when he endorsed Obama. Journalist Carl Bernstein – no fawning cheerleader – called Tuesday “a transformational moment” for the United States.

“There have been great political leaders in good times and in bad, but transformational figures come especially when there is pain,” said Rybak. “I’ve seen him with people, and they light up. We’ve got to light up. It’s about him, yes, but it’s about what he does to us.”

What’s it all mean?
If Obama is that figure and this is that moment, what do we do with it? What do we take from it for the next four years?

Clearly, a certain magic was created by the set of objective facts.

An African-American who nobody outside of the Illinois State House heard of six years ago is going to be president of the United States. Young people – who, exit polls show, voted about 70 percent for him – wear his photo on their T-shirts. He has embraced an entire new generation and they him.

People chant his name. He’s from a city but won voters in the suburbs. He’s from the North but won voters in the South and West.

Obama, said Minneapolis schools superintendent Bill Green, a historian specializing in American history, is a “marginal man.”

“These transformational leaders have to be marginal men,” Green said. “They have to be men who are not fully of us. They have to be enough a part of us to take note, enough a part of us to think, ‘Well, maybe he does belong to us,’ but he’s enough a part of ‘the other’ that he can see the broader world and teach us how to look at a different world, a world that can better.”

Obama straddles so many categories while foreshadowing others. He is biracial in a nation that will be majority non-white by mid-century. He is post-Baby Boom in an aging America.

He is a black man who grew up in a home without a father. But his cute-as-can-be black daughters will grow up in the White House.

He is married and in love with a powerful, professional African-American woman who is her own force and who will now have her own bully pulpit.

University of Minnesota communications Professor Catherine Squires pointed to Barack Obama’s comments at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner last month, when he and McCain made fun of themselves and each other.

Obama said then: “Fox News accused me of fathering two African-American children in wedlock.”

“In wedlock,” Squires said, with emphasis.

It was a bittersweet joke.

“Children ‘out of wedlock’ is a phrase that is attached to the black father and black mother all the time,” said Squires. “He hit that on the head … The symbolism of a first family that is African-American in a time when black families are regularly characterized as ‘pathological’ is stunning.”

A spiritual leader?
Such reality and symbolism “moves us beyond the divide,” said the Rev. Grant Abbott, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches.

In a sense, Obama follows a pattern of leaders calling on the people to rise up.

Abbott spoke of St. Francis, who, amid a corrupt church, “called people to simplicity and peace and cooperation.”

Abbott spoke of Jesus, “who is really a Jewish leader calling on the people of Israel to remember what religion is ultimately about: You care for those people who God really cares about, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the left out, the least.”

Obama strikes this chord of commitment to the underdog while requiring sacrifice in the days ahead. And, as he did in his victory speech last night, he cautions about the oncoming difficulties and the need for shared responsibility.

“I know you didn’t do this just to win an election, and I know you didn’t do it for me,” Obama said, turning the tables on the electorate and asking it to take credit for his victory. “You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime. … The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.”

It is a call to action. It is a rally to lift us from a depression of the national spirit.

Other skills
He is transformational, others say, because he applied fundamental community-organizing tactics in a campaign that led to his near landslide election.

He is transformational, others say still, because his use of technology to raise money and create a social network of supporters has changed the game.

For instance, late Tuesday night, he sent this email to supporters:

“I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.

We just made history.

And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.

You made history every single day during this campaign – every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change.

I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign.

We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.

But I want to be very clear about one thing…

All of this happened because of you.

Thank you,

It was sent to so many people that it took about three hours for it to arrive in inboxes nationwide.

But it is a new day in America when the new President sends an email to his flock before he takes the stage on television for the rest of the world to see.

The moment
A transformational figure is almost singularly right for the exact moment.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find any other person who could have or would have taken this on at this moment,” said Squires, the University of Minnesota’s John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality. “It’s interesting that Colin Powell is the one who called [Obama] a transformational figure because some people imagined him as a transformational figure for the Republican Party, the first African-American candidate to be considered legit, and he did not take on that role.”

It’s only for certain people. But if Obama is transformational, does that mean he transforms us, too? Does he become a factoid on the timeline of history, or does he actually renew the populace and our democracy?

Well, a little bit.

On the issue of race, Obama’s victory will be profound, if sometimes ambiguous.

Squires has seen over the past few years a change in her college students that “People want more opportunities to talk about issues around race relations. They’re hungry for it. And it’s clear that Barack Obama makes it easier for large numbers of people to feel safer talking about race.”

That seems positive.

But Superintendent Green had another take from another generation of African-Americans. He pointed to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine.

There, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland described the tears his father wept when Cummings was sworn into office in 1996. But they weren’t simply tears of joy, Cummings’ father said.

“Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father is quoted in that Times piece. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.”

Green said Obama’s victory has landed on the doorsteps and hearts of older black people with mixed feelings, as expressed by Cummings’ father.

“There was an element of frustration that the younger generation benefits from the sacrifices of the past,” Green said. “Why did this father have to give up so much?”

Green went on, “It’s probably not the most politically correct thing to say. People are now happy, but there is an element of ambivalence about the nature of the success. It’s more sweet than bitter, but there’s an element of ambivalence for a generation of people who know the history of degradation and segregation and limitation when what Obama achieved was not possible. They feel glad that society has moved forward. They feel glad that this individual has taken us forward, but you can’t help but think of the opportunities that you never had.”

Squires notes that even some Obama campaign volunteers talked about supporting him because ” ‘He’s got this white side.’ I found that very troubling, that people feel like the side of him that is his asset is only his white side and emphasizing his white family is a way to quell fears about his racial and ethnic background.”

So much for Obama personifying the “end of race.”

With Obama’s election, Green believes that lives will improve and public schools could be better funded.

But this “other” man can’t eliminate the reality of “every” young black man in the core cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Detroit or Philadelphia.

“The jury is still out on how much of an impact Sen. Obama’s quest will have on African-American males,” said Green, whose school district must address this tough issue daily. “I think there’s reason to be hopeful, but I think the lives that our young men live are still quite desperate … The reason why a lot of our young men look at issues of survival is because they live on streets where their lives can be taken at any time. We don’t have a lot of nurturing men in their lives.”

In a sense, Green noted, this is Obama’s life, a life reared by women.

“While a lot of young men will look at Obama with pride, they will still be dealing with a world that doesn’t afford the same opportunities yet,” Green said. “We still are trying to get kids to believe that their lives can continue after 18.

“Yes, it’s about having heroes but also believing you can do the same thing. That’s the trick.”

It’s the kind of magic that a transformational figure at the perfect moment must perform.

Jay Weiner writes about off-the-field sports issues, such as sports business and sports and public policy, and about other subjects. He can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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