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November 04, 2008

Barack Obama may well be a very good choice, and if he wins we'll learn the folly of Messiah Politics - argues Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North argues that an Obama victory will teach us two important - and surprising - lessons. The views expressed here are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

This is a wonderful moment to assess the Obama bid for the presidency, now when everything remains uncertain.

The most important point is that this is an historic run, in the sense of looking backward. Barack Obama's campaign has been about the overhang race and slavery has produced in America. Of course it is also pivotal: win or lose, Obama's run makes it clear that in the American future it will be harder to blame political failure on one's colour. Still, even if this campaign is changing America, it is the prejudiced past which has dominated this election.

We know this is true because we know that Barack Obama would not have got as far as he has had he been white. Neither white liberals nor the majority of blacks would have warmed to him as a white man.

There are lots of wonderful elements to a campaign which has energised the young and the black electorates, including (a pessimist might say) a dangerous appetite for the messianic in too many Obama supporters. They want him to be The Change - to be that transformative being who can sprinkle stardust over obdurate reality. We can only hope that the candidate hasn't fallen for messianism himself. That would bring him into Tony Blair territory.

Obama is an interesting candidate, for sure. He is fluent, cool and easy in his skin. He is steely, ruthless or tough according to your taste. In all these respects he reminds us of Blair.

But we should not pursue that comparison too far. The essential thing about Blair was that he had a class chip on his shoulder. It was incomprehensible, but it was there. He acted working class. Obama does not seem to be pretending to be anything. He's not pretending to be from the hood. He's not pretending to come from a redneck state, as George W. Bush did with his faux-Texan identity. And he's not playing the feel-your-pain card as Bill Clinton seemed to do with his fractured background.

Actually, though, one could say that Obama is pretending to be black and that is something which wits often laid at Bill Clinton's door. One of the reasons race will change in America is that there'll be too much mixing up of the races for racism to work well. Like an increasing number of blacks, Obama is genetically half-white. It should be meaningless to ask whether he is white or black culturally, and not much comfort that it is a question more importantly asked by blacks than whites.

But I do think it is fair to accuse Barack Obama of having pretended to have found his former pastor Wright's cast of mind attractive. I think too highly of Barack to believe that he meant it. I prefer to believe that Obama could not resist hoovering up a little more blackness than he felt, or even that he felt the need to live out a blackness which was as near to authentic simplicity as he could find.

Unlike nearly everyone, I disliked Obama's race speech in Philadelphia this March. It tried to argue that blacks had to be allowed the awfulness of some of their race-based rhetoric. The speech had two great merits. It worked. And it showed how powerful and awful the legacy of race remains in America. I don't say Obama was wrong to make the speech, but it remains a pandering effort. It reminded us that the man who has helped knife race as a political issue and to transcend it, could only achieve power by sloshing nonsense over this key issue.

I am ambivalent about the prospect of an Obama presidency partly because it ought to matter that if Obama had been white he would not have been on offer. We would presumably be debating the merits of a Hillary Clinton candidacy. Mrs Clinton would equally have been an identity politics candidate, so there's some parity there. But Senator McCain would be looking better than he does now. He would have been fighting a routine candidate, not The One.

About three-quarters of the time, Senator McCain has said far wiser and more decent things than Senator Obama. But he has also seemed less steady than one requires of a President. So one isn't thrilled by the choice to be made between the two men.

I feel much warmer toward an Obama presidency when I consider the following. The whole world, let alone America, needs the US to have a black president at some point and probably right now. Good or bad, blackness will be a hugely valuable factor in an American president at this moment. And I mean abroad as much as at home. The wider non-caucasian world will note Obama's colour and his middle name. It will help them get over themselves.

It is also hugely valuable that Barack Obama seems like a black man who is less hung up by his race and has given it far fewer political hostages than it is likely another black politician would have managed.

Maybe merely by finessing America's race politics in his own brilliant style Barack Obama has shown the smarts and the reserves a president needs. And hell, he may govern much more like a Republican - a sound government Tory - than anyone supposes. He may govern as the kind of Republican we softies always hoped McCain might have been.

We can be sure of one thing. If he lives and thrives long enough, which we must ardently hope for, he will cease to be The One. And that'll be two good lessons learned. The race lesson is obvious. The lesson that politics is not religion will be just as useful.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its 2007 digital update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007.


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