The assessment of Barack Obama’s rise is still in the stages of what could only be called “journalism”, a proper scholarly history is yet to be written and it may very well take a decade for that to come. This blog is the outcome of watching a documentary about Obama by “PBS Frontline”.
The rapid ascendance of Barack Obama is yet to be understood in its entirety, he is still very much “history in the making”. Obama could not even get a ticket to attend Al Gore’s 2000 Democratic Convention. 4 years later he was a keynote speaker in John Kerry’s 2004 convention. In what is an unprecedented consequence of a singular speech that speech propelled him to the US Senate, the 3rd Afro-American senator (by popular election) since Reconstruction. The dynamics of his decision to run for the senate yields some clues regarding his run for the Presidency barely a year after getting elected as US Senator.
During the heated South Carolina primary in 2008, ‘race’ became center stage. Until his historic win in Iowa caucus, where Hillary finished at a humiliating 3rd place, Afro-Americans did not warm up to his candidacy in large numbers. Afro-Americans were deeply skeptical of America electing a black candidate, especially a freshman senator. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, civil rights icons, had run earlier, ending as ‘also-rans’. To complicate matters a Clinton was on the ballot. Bill Clinton was famously called by Toni Morrison, black Nobel laureate novelist, “the first black President”. The Clintons had cultivated a deep pocket of very committed supporters amongst the black community. Iowa changed all that and the black community rallied behind Obama for a historic candidacy.
Some supporters of Hillary asked her to bow out of the South Carolina primary citing the fact that more than 50% voters are blacks. Hillary refused and ploughed head long. During a CNN moderated debate exchanges became white hot between Hillary and Barack. Bill Clinton’s name figured prominently as Obama complained tartly “I don’t know who (which Clinton) I am running against”. Rumor mills started grinding. Charges of racism flew thick and fast against the Clintons and especially Bill Clinton. When any Clinton or Clinton campaign member questioned Obama’s experience the black community felt aggrieved. Some blacks openly voiced their anger that said those questions suggest that “Obama should wait his turn and let Hillary win now”. This trope of “wait his turn” and yield for a white American really rubbed hard. Bill Clinton was enraged. Hillary was given a drubbing in the primary. Barack Obama completely obliterated her. Standing on a tarmac staring into a microphone Bill Clinton, with an air of haughtiness, declared “well Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina primary before” (and lost the nomination thereafter with no other victories). With that flippant comment Bill Clinton completely antagonized many blacks who were until then wavering at ditching a Clinton. Hillary lost a vital constituency in democratic primaries. The rest is history. However until recent times the black community felt aggrieved at what they perceived as racism by the Clintons. The community especially felt enraged at the “experience question” and felt it was code for “let the black candidate wait for his turn which the whites shall decide when”.
I watched a documentary of Obama recently and was struck by something very interesting. After completing at Harvard Law the fresh graduate came to Chicago to work at a law firm but keenly interested in electoral politics. Note that by now Obama had already garnered some attention as the first Afro-American President of “Harvard Law Review”. Alice Palmer a state senator herself decided to run for US congress. She tapped on Obama, her supporter, to run for her state-senate seat. Obama duly filed for nomination and announced his candidacy in 1996. However Palmer’s candidacy floundered and she decided to run for her own senate seat again. She and the black community ‘establishment’ leaders asked Obama to stand down. Obama, the documentary said, was flummoxed and enraged. Obama refused to back down and decided to give Chicago pols a dose, a very good dose, of their own hard knuckle politics. Obama had his team question the veracity of signatures in Alice Palmer's candidacy petition. This being Chicago it does not take a genius to figure out that most were fake. Obama's team then questioned the petitions of all other candidates. Finally all except Obama were disqualified and Obama won uncontested.
If the story had ended there there would be no Shakespearean side to this. Obama got re-elected for state-senate in 1998. In true Obama fashion he wanted to move on. In 2000 Obama decided to contest for US Congress against a well entrenched establishment candidate Bobby Rush. The black community establishment politicians were shocked by the chutzpah of somebody they considered an upstart. Obama's ivy league education and bi-racial background came handy for a snide campaign. A black politician not forged in the civil rights battle was considered a presumptuous upstart by the veterans.
A NYT article quoted Rush, “He was blinded by his ambition, Obama has never suffered from a lack of believing that he can accomplish whatever it is he decides to try. Obama believes in Obama. And, frankly, that has its good side but it also has its negative side.”
Obama's Ivy league education became a stick to castigate him with, Rush portrayed Obama as outsider, "He went to Harvard and became an educated fool. We’re not impressed with these folks with these Eastern elite degrees.” Added to that was the really snide campaign against Obama that he was not "black enough". On election day Bill Clinton, breaking tradition that a sitting President does not wade into his party's primaries, endorsed Bobby Rush. Rush won over Obama 2:1.
Having been chastised Obama nursed his wounds and rebounded deciding to run for US Senate. Very audacious for a candidate with a very thin record and no great funds to run for a state wide office. The genius of Obama, in my opinion, is choosing to run for a state wide office. Unlike a congressional race that is defined by narrow sliver of interests and narrow demographics a state wide office run is on a wider canvas. As much as there are challenges for running a state wide campaign there are advantages too. In US politics congressmen usually cater (or pander) to a very narrow section of population hence more prone to be partisan or ideological. Senators need to address a wider cross section and hence 'tend' to be a little less ideological. This is Dennis Kucinich, multi-term congressman from Cincinnati will never be president. This is why Christine O'Donnel lost the senate race in Delaware.
During the presidential race, in the very early days old black leaders who consider themselves as arbiters of black politics felt slighted by Obama. Rev Jesse Jackson in a very embarassing moment, thinking the microphone was switched off, muttered "I want to cut off his ****". Obama's relationship with the black community deserves an analysis by itself.
The other point worth reflecting, in the headwinds that Obama ran into, is how political establishment always fights a new comer. While commentators and blacks were ready to see a racial coloring to Clinton campaign and later McCain campaign not many recognized that black political leadership practically treated Obama worse, in fact more overtly than white Hillary or McCain could. The lesson here is that fighting for entrenched interests cuts across color. Often times men act like men always do, race has nothing to do with it.
With lessons learned from one of the toughest backyards in politics Obama met the calling of his lifetime, running for President. Incidentally Alice Palmer endorsed Hillary in 2008.