Barack Obama's Great Challenge

Posted: Jan 28, 2008 12:01 AM
Barack Obama's Great Challenge

A specter is facing Barack Obama's once bright-as-hope presidential campaign. Instead of the new hope of his party, and maybe of the country, he may be pigeonholed as the Black Candidate, his appeal effectively limited to just one segment of the electorate.

It didn't seem much of a danger at first, certainly not after he swept the caucuses in snow-white Iowa. He was the all-American candidate for a happy while there.

But a not-so-funny thing happened when the race issue, which used to be the bane only of Southern politics, began to weigh down both major contenders for the Democratic presidential campaign. As if they'd been swept up by an historical, sociological and just plain ornery wave over which they had no control.

Soon both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, or at least their more rabid partisans, including Senator Clinton's spouse and surrogate, found themselves caught up in a catfight with no clear end or purpose, except to expose the country's always bad temper whenever race enters and quickly mars the picture.

Just how we all got into this pretty mess once again, and just who was responsible for first playing the race card, if anyone was, and how this always volatile issue will affect future primaries and the general election, and so pointlessly on Š can be safely left to the usual pack of second-guessers, political buffs and kibitzers in general that follows each presidential campaign. (Only now they're called analysts/experts/talking heads, and seem to enjoy a certain ersatz respectability.)

The race issue does have this way of interjecting itself into American politics all by itself, as pervasive and volatile as race has been and still can be in American politics, not to mention American society. For we're still a long way from having formed what Martin Luther King called The Beloved Community.

All of which presents Barack Obama with his latest challenge of many: How does he get his bright young charm back, his appeal to all? Answer: By rising above the race issue. By campaigning now the way he started out, not as the black candidate but as an American one. By invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King.

Which is just what he did in his tribute to King at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Once again those old halls resounded with an appeal for unity. And the candid confession that we are all sinners.

Dr. King himself might have been proud of the young senator as he ascended the pulpit to state some old truths anew. For his words seemed very much in the spirit of the Martin Luther King that some of us remember. To quote a few of the things that Barack Obama said, and that needed saying:

"(I)f we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

"Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division across all races and regions; across gender and party. It is played out on television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it even crept into the campaign for president, with charges and counter-charges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation.

"Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our hearts."

Did the candidate get back on track in his moving speech Sunday? The rest of his campaign will answer that question. But it's clear he's started to. Never underestimate the power of words, or of the Word. Nor the appeal to the supposed Other, and the healing effect of even a little humility.

Would that all the presidential candidates follow Barack Obama's lead, and try to raise the level of political discourse in this country, to elevate it above all the usual clever calculations, even above their own ambitions.