Most aspiring presidents and prime ministers face a myriad of challenges as they embark on their journey. Issue controversies, questions about ethics or past conduct, wounds within the party all raise their heads and confront the candidate. But the doubts Barack Obama faces are far more existential than the more superficial questions raised about most candidates. They go to his very core as a person and call into question his values, his worldview, and even his patriotism.
Hard racial divisions have softened in America but fear of the “other” persists. Their possible next president has a strange name. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He had a Muslim Kenyan father who left when he was a baby. He made his political career in the cesspool of American politics -- the traditionally corrupt Chicago Democratic machine. His pastor of twenty years after whose sermons he entitled his book seems to hate white people in general and America in particular (despite getting $15 million in federal funding for his church). His wife says she is now proud of America for the first time in her adult life – and she’s in her mid forties. He is a bit of a reach for the average American voter.
If he were white, with similar associations, he would be suspect. But he comes from a world few white voters know or understand and the fear lingers that he is some kind of latter-day Manchurian candidate, a sleeper agent, poised to take control of the United States government.
What makes all this particularly difficult to fathom is that Barack Obama is a mild mannered intellectual, with a marvelous sense of poise and decorum, who handles himself eloquently and with dignity and comes to politics with a style and grace we have not seen since JFK. His pedigree includes Columbia University and Harvard Law where he was editor of the Law Review. He taught constitutional law. In his manner and his appearance he is as far from his controversial background and associates as one could possibly imagine.
But this disjuncture between who he appears to be and who his background and associations suggest he might be is so profound that it leads to the most basic of doubts and worries among American voters.
Hillary Clinton always has been the bête-noir to blue collar, downscale, American men. But they lined up at the polls to vote for her, so deep was their fear of who Obama might turn out to be. Their inveterate sexism was no match for their racial fears, ignited by the questions surrounding Obama.