Is America Ready for President Obama?

WASHINGTON – The Democratic primaries arithmetic is clearly against Senator Hillary Clinton. It is unlikely that she will win her party’s nomination. Paradoxically, however, her persistent argument that she would be a better candidate in the general election is probably correct. As she says, if nominated, she would appeal to a broader political base. Whereas, chances are that Senator Barack Obama, whatever his popularity among Democrats revealed in his astonishing success in the primaries, in the end may not be chosen by a majority of US voters.

But why would Obama not get those votes? What is obliquely implied, although the innuendos from the Clinton camp are becoming more and more open, is that Senator Obama does not resonate enough with predominantly white middle to lower middle class, small town America. And this is not because of his ideas and his policies; but because he is black. And Senator Clinton, even leaving aside her newly minted I-am-a-small-town girl-really-just-like-you folksiness, without saying too much can point the obvious to all who can see: she is white.

Nobody really says this quite so directly. But, the existence of an enduring racial divide in America is at least implicitly asserted by various analysts. For instance, in the general commentary, it is taken for granted that Obama will do well (as he did) in North Carolina because of the large number of blacks who will vote for him as a block (as they did); and not so well in Pennsylvania because of the dominance of the middle class, more conservative, small town people (who happen to be mostly white), who will vote (as they did) for Hillary Clinton.

And Senator Hillary Clinton keeps repeating that in the general election one needs to appeal to the vast American middle and lower middle class. And a black face may just not connect with these voters as the white face of an “experienced Senator” that will do anything to help the embattled (mostly white) middle class. The unstated obvious fact that supports Clinton’s position is that there are a lot more whites than blacks in America.

Of course, this description of a still racially divided America is only partially true. From the very beginnings in Iowa it became obvious that Senator Obama developed a genuine connection with many white voters. But these are the voters who are or are inclined to be color blind. They look at Barak Obama as a different type of individual; not as the follow on of the standard bearers of black grievances.

These more enlightened white voters may be numerically significant within the context of the Democratic Party’s primaries. There may enough of them to get Obama the nomination. But, looking at the Nation as a whole, they may not be numerous enough to get him elected president. While nobody says this openly, the newly minted notion that Barak Obama is a post-racial candidate has not been universally accepted. The vote distribution in these primaries proves it. Hillary Clinton got the votes of the (mostly white) less educated skeptics. Of course, this is not the only reason why she got those votes; but a significant one.

Without saying so directly, Hillary Clinton’s powerful subliminal message is: “America in 2008 is not ready to elect a black president. I am a much safer bet”. And, even though this assertion of residual racism in America may be extremely self-serving for Senator Clinton, it may be factually correct. If this is so, she would be a better candidate.

Of course, it all started differently. The Iowa caucus appeared to be the proclamation of a new era. A black candidate won there mostly because of white voters. So, the enlightened progressives could state that henceforth the race issue is history, or so it seemed. People like Obama because he is a healer and a coalition builder. In fact, his being half white, half black symbolically would point to his ability to unite (if not entirely blend) the two races and end the enduring prejudices that poison the American society.

Besides, Obama is also a different kind of black. His father was African from Africa. So his blackness is not wrapped in the sad history of slavery and segregation. He does not carry this heavy legacy in his own being. He is not personally burdened by it; and so he does not need to proclaim it. Refreshingly, he has a different style. He is not a let-us-right-all-the-old-wrongs before we can talk about anything, old style black politician.

Or so it all seemed. For a while, the mystique of his being “New” was accepted and not seriously challenged. But then the Reverend Wright story came about. With that unhappy development we witnessed Obama’s inability to create quickly and convincingly a clear separation between himself and the wild black preacher. This was enough to deflate the idealized image of Obama as post racial this and that. Yes, he may be different. But his associations with old style, predictable, blacks are suspect, and so he may be too. As scores of commentators have said, how could he be in that Chicago church for twenty years and be unaware of at least some of the more radical views expressed by the Pastor? So, because of this unsavory association with the old style black landscape, it has been easy for many to re-label Obama as just another black politician.

This Wright association, fairly or not, allowed many to drag Obama’s candidacy back into the more familiar ground of racial contention that he had studiously avoided. With Obama’s brand of “Being New’ questioned, it became easy for many to re-label him as a black politician who invariably will bring forth the usual litany of old grievances.

From this (white) vantage point, blacks at best can be effective advocates of the historically persecuted and dispossessed minorities. At best they can be the defenders of “their own people”. But for this very reason, they are perceived as unfit to move beyond this important but hopelessly narrow space. If this is how a large chunk of the middle of the road white voters perceive Barak Obama’s candidacy, then he has no chance in the November general election.

If this is still the prevailing psychological environment, a lower middle class white voter will feel more comfortable if represented by an energetic white woman. Clinton, with solid middle class background, appears reliable. A cosmopolitan black who lived in strange and exotic places like Indonesia that “normal people” know nothing about and who was a friend of a radical black preacher would make many uncomfortable. Furthermore, according to some (admittedly contradictory) rumors, Obama may even be a Muslim, something akin to a Satan worshipper in some quarters.

And, reading between the lines, this is the essence of the self-serving message repeated daily by Senator Hillary Clinton. Of course, she does not say that Middle America will not vote for Obama because he is black. She just says that she has a proven record of attracting large numbers of these (white) voters, while Obama does not. Obama, instead, has to rely on his composite coalition of the idealistic (probably really post-racial) young, the sophisticated and educated urban whites and the blacks. And that is not a broad enough base to get elected president. And why is it that he does not connect so well with small town whites? Who knows….Well, we know why: Because he is black and thus still “alien” to them, to put it gently.

If America is still prisoner of the old logic; if, in plain English, racist prejudice is still very significant, Hillary Clinton is right. Obama may be the choice of a majority of the Democrats who vote now in the primaries. But as a candidate in the general election he is unlikely to get the votes of the millions of white centrists who, in the end, determine the winner.

If this is so, it means that we have not progressed enough. More than forty years after the civil rights movement and epochal legislation aimed at righting old wrongs, America is still conditioned by the old stereotypes.

While Obama brings a new tone, a new message and new ways, for many whites he is still viewed as another black politicians who would tend to the interests of “his people”; and thus not reliable enough to be the standard bearer of the now needy whites. The reverend Wright story, by connecting Obama with a segment of old style black ideology and mannerism, made it easy for the stereotype to take over.

Given all this, between this unproven man (who may be closer to the kind we know and do not like) and the feisty Hillary Clinton, better the feisty lady. “Better the lady. She is one of us. OK, let’s say it: At least she is white”. This is what many who are not voting now in the Democratic primaries, but who are going to vote in the general election, will think. Of course, they would not dare saying it in the open, lest they be classified as the prejudiced people they unfortunately are.

It is not uncommon for the darling of the party activists to be triumphantly nominated only to be later on soundly defeated by a majority of the voters who think otherwise. But, if Barak Obama is the Democratic Party nominee, this would be the first test of the enduring relevance of racism in America in the context of a presidential election. Of course, it would be unfair to assume that most people who would not vote for him are racist; but a large number probably are. When, before Iowa and other marvels, many politely said that America “may not be ready” for a black president, this is what they meant. Racism is still too strong. A black candidate would not get a fair hearing.

Hillary Clinton would like to convince her party, that because of all this, she is the best bet to retake the White House. Unluckily for her, while her assessment may be correct, given her party’s mood of the moment, in the end she may not be able to prevail.