US elections - is real change coming?

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Barack Obama has risen from idealistic Democratic outsider to become the first black US presidential candidate of a major party. Gary Younge explores the importance of the Obama phenomenon which has inspired millions, but also the limitations of his political agenda

There was something different about the Martin Luther King Day parade in Charleston this year. To the drumbeats of the marching bands from black schools and more sombre sounds of local black clergymen, came the spirited chants of representatives from local black churches and a throng of the overwhelmingly white coterie of Barack Obama volunteers: "Obama '08! We're ready. Why wait?" Among them was a young man who was "so depressed" after Obama's New Hampshire defeat that he had dropped everything he'd been doing in Guatemala and flown back to help out. There was also an elderly woman from Florida who had read his book Dreams From My Father two weeks earlier and was so inspired she felt she needed to do something.

From the pavement local African-Americans cheered their encouragement. Obama's victory in Iowa (one of the whitest states in the nation) a few weeks earlier had proved that a black presidential candidacy was no longer a pipe dream. Now a significant number of white people - most from out of town - had come to the parade calling for them to make common cause. Once in a while the volunteers went to the pavement, handing out leaflets, awkwardly offering up high fives and even hugging the locals.

It was hardly the Mississippi Freedom Summer. But it was something. A moment. A political moment that produced hopeful human engagement. Within half an hour it had evaporated. The parade was over. The white volunteers would not talk to me without approval from Obama HQ, even to explain their excitement. When authorisation came through for them to speak their minds, the guy from Guatemala gushed about the coming of a post-racial America. Meanwhile the black people went back to their homes in the poorest parts of town and waited for change.

It is easy to be cynical about the historical nature of Obama's presidential candidacy. In a nation that prides itself on social meritocracy and unrelenting progress - even as class mobility calcifies to a rate lower than Britain's - symbolic advances can be over-exaggerated. This is particularly true in American political culture where image so overwhelms reality that George Bush can be both a teetotal former alcoholic son of wealthy, powerful parents and yet be understood as the man-of-the-people candidate with whom voters would most like to have a drink.

Moreover, Obama's victory was neither as decisive nor as definitive as it is often portrayed. True, by March he had built an almost unassailable lead that only the unelected superdelegates could overturn, making the race his to lose. But that lead was as enduring as it was narrow and right to the end Hillary Clinton kept chipping away at it. In the end he won by just 0.4 percent of the popular vote and 7 percent of the delegates. Even with his victory all but assured Clinton still won six of the last ten states and territories to vote - hardly a huge vote of confidence from the Democratic base.

By winning seven of the whitest states in the country and nine of the blackest states he reset the mould for what a black politician can achieve in US politics on a national level. But the new mould is not quite the era of post-racial politics many claim. In the in between areas where black people have enough of a presence for race - and racism - to infect the local political culture but not enough of a presence to make a substantial voting bloc, he floundered. Clinton won eight of the ten states with black populations just below the national average. Those include the strategically important swing states for the presidential election of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Nevada.

Poverty

And while his viability may represent an electoral advance for African-Americans it tells us about as much about the social and economic situation of black Americans as the late Benazir Bhutto's election tells us about the status of women in Pakistan. Indeed Obama's candidacy is not consistent with the social rise of African-Americans but aberrant to it. According to a report by the Pew research centre in November last year black Americans are more dissatisfied with their progress than at any time in the past 20 years. Another Pew survey released at the same time shows that almost half (45 percent) of African-Americans born to middle-income parents in the wake of the civil rights era have descended into poverty or near poverty as adults.

"[Obama] is being consumed as the embodiment of colour blindness," Angela Davis, professor of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told me last year. "It's the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That's what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He's become the model of diversity in this period... a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference. The change that brings no change." Finally, he did not build a multi-racial coalition but a bi-racial one. Clinton's base has been erroneously portrayed as simply the white working class and older white women. But in California Latinos and Asian-Americans went much more heavily for Clinton than whites did and made her victory possible. The same was true with Latinos in Texas. Indeed the only state where Obama won the Latino vote was his home state of Illinois. And even then by just 1 percent.

So Obama's victory was narrow. The symbolism of his candidacy has been overstated along with his ability to transcend the racial and ethnic divide. But it was still a victory. His candidacy is still both historic and symbolic. And he did build a coalition across racial lines. These are no small feats. Indeed to dismiss these achievements arbitrarily would be no less of a mistake than to exaggerate them. For them to be meaningful they have to symbolise something substantial and occasionally that "something" can be quite profound. In Obama's case his ascent has been made possible by both the civil rights movement and its heirs, even as his agenda represents a paradigm shift from them.

In the past black political leadership was drawn primarily from religious institutions. During the latter half of the last century black leaders rose in politics primarily through religious institutions, which since slavery had been one of the few autonomous areas of black life. "The principal social institution within every black community was the church," wrote black academic and activist Manning Marable in Black Leadership. "As political leaders, the black clergy were usually the primary spokespersons for the entire black community, especially during periods of crisis. As the political system became more democratic and as more blacks were permitted to participate in voting, it was only a small shift from running a large church to running for public office." However problematic the role of the church had been, it was, nonetheless, organically connected to the black community.

But the victories of the civil rights movement enabled other advances for a generation of black leaders, of whom Obama is just the most prominent figure.

Their politics are different but their trajectories are the same. Like Obama, who went to Columbia and Harvard universities, they all have CVs to die for. Among them are the Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick (Harvard); the Newark mayor, Cory Booker (Yale); the Democratic Leadership Council chair and former Tennessee congressman, Harold Ford Jr (University of Pennsylvania); and the Maryland lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown (Harvard). Such résumés are not the rule, but nowadays they are by no means an exception.

In other words, in the past black leaders were produced by the black community. Today they are more likely to be presented to them. This, more than tortured explanations of ethnic authenticity, explains the initial ambivalence black voters had towards Obama. After eight years of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice they had no idea who he was and wanted to know where he was coming from and whom he planned to represent. "Are they black enough?" was often shorthand for a universal voter concern: "Will they represent my interests?" By the time the Obama volunteers were lightening up Martin Luther King Day in Charleston that hesitancy had evaporated. By the time Bill Clinton had finished disparaging in racially coded terms what had started as ambivalence, passed through race-pride, and turned into anti-racist defence that would secure the black vote for the rest of the primaries.

But this generation of black politicians also has access to one more resource that was barely available even 20 years ago - white votes.

In 1958, 53 percent of voters said they would not vote for a black candidate for president; in 1984 it was 16 percent; by 2003 it was 6 percent. Before 1958 pollsters never bothered even asking the question. This is one of the central facts reshaping opportunities for black politicians - white people have become a viable electoral constituency for black candidates that in turn have made them viable contenders outside the black community.

"The civil rights generation saw politics as the next step in the struggle for civil rights," explains Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times. "Their aim was to get their agenda taken up by whoever won. But this new generation do not conceive politics as the next step but just as what it is - politics. Their aim is to win." This is real progress. But it carries with it real challenges. To be successful this new generation has to nurture a different base and cohere a different coalition of interests than their predecessors did. This demands a different rhetorical and campaigning style and necessitated a shift in strategy. Herein lies the central generational tension between Obama and his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright's caustic remarks about US foreign policy and poisonous history are as common a feature as hot sauce around an African-American table, even though they were shocking to some whites. But in a previous generation Wright would not have been an embarrassment to the candidate. He would have been the candidate. And he wouldn't have had to have taken white sensitivities into consideration.

Obama knows this only too well. In The Audacity of Hope he recalls sitting in the Illinois Senate with a white Democratic legislator as they watched a black colleague (referred to as John Doe) deliver a speech on the racist implications of eliminating a certain programme. "You know what the problem is with John?" the white senator asked him. "Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white." Obama reflected. "In defence of my black colleague, I pointed out that it's not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take - too angry? Not angry enough? - when discussing the enormous hardships facing his or her constituents. Still, [his] comment was instructive. Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America."

Outed

Whether "white guilt" has ever truly been exercised, exorcised or even exhausted, and what good it ever did anyone even if it has, are moot points. The fact of the matter is that a black politician who wants white support must first "gauge the right tone". Part of that strategy has been for Obama to insist that he has transcended race. "There is not a black America or a white America; there is the United States of America," he told the Democratic convention of 2004 in his landmark speech that launched him to public prominence. In many ways his race has been his worst kept secret. One of his central tasks seems to be not to scare white people and so he has to find a way to make white people comfortable about voting for a black candidate without actually talking about it.

In all of this, beyond some civil rights references, race is virtually absent from his message but central to his meaning. He constantly and subtly evokes the historic nature of his candidacy. But in moments of acute racial tension - when police officers who pumped 50 bullets into an unarmed black New Yorker, or the excessive and discriminatory charges against six young black kids in Jena, Louisiana, alleged to have been involved in a schoolyard brawl - his responses are late and lukewarm. At a recent rally in Detroit Obama volunteers prevented Muslims in headscarves from sitting behind him. (The campaign later apologised.) On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King both McCain and Clinton made it to Memphis, but Obama stayed away. Such strategic absences have drawn stern criticism from many African-Americans.

But every now and then he is outed. The Reverend Wright controversy has so far been the most blatant example, where much of white America seemed distressed to discover that its new black friend himself has a black friend. More recently these "outings" have diverted to his wife Michelle. When Democrats called on Republicans to lay off Michelle Obama, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News ran a tagline stating: "Outraged Liberals: stop picking on Obama's baby mama." On the night Obama won the nomination he bumped his fists with Michelle - a regular, banal greeting among African-Americans and the young. Fox News termed it a "terrorist fist jab". Apparently there is a white and black America. They occupy different, if overlapping, cultural spaces. The segregation that divides them is not just physical but psychic. Before Obama can transcend race he will have to play his part in eliminating the racism that makes race possible as a concept.

But the symbolic nature of his candidacy goes beyond his melanin content. Running against Hillary Clinton and John McCain, he represents a generational break from the all-too familiar names that have dominated the American polity for the last two decades at a time when Americans are desperate for a change of course.

Just 15 percent believe the country is on the right track - around a third of the figure following the election of Bush in 2004. Meanwhile almost half believe the country's best days have been and gone. In the past 18 months almost every poll that has asked Americans about their country's direction has produced among the most pessimistic responses on record - a more extended period than anyone can remember since Watergate. And it's not difficult to see why. A consistent two thirds disapprove of how Bush is handling Iraq; consumer confidence is the lowest for decades and three quarters of people believe the economy is getting worse. Wages are stagnant; food and fuel prices are rocketing; and house prices are nosediving.

Change may be an Obama slogan. But it is also a deeply held desire for the overwhelming majority of Americans, who have seen a simultaneous and precipitous decline in their personal circumstances and global prestige over the past eight years.

Obama's candidacy offers no real solution to these problems. He is no radical. In terms of policy his agenda was no more progressive than Clinton's. When it comes to the urgent issues that the US must address, both at home and abroad, in order to establish both international and economic security his responses are inadequate, if not downright inept. The day after he clinched the nomination he went before the pro-Israeli lobby to declare himself a "true friend of Israel" and promise that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided". (Jerusalem is not in fact officially recognised as the capital of Israel. Only Israel claims it as such.)

His policies on both healthcare and the mortgage crisis were the least comprehensive of the main primary candidates. His advisory team is full of neoliberals and pro-Israelis. He has pledged to withdraw most of the troops from Iraq, but only when the conditions on the ground are right. That could mean anything, including nothing.

The fact that he would be a distinct improvement on McCain, an anti-choice advocate who has said he wouldn't care if the US troops stayed in Iraq for another thousand years, is undoubtedly true. In global terms there may be relatively little difference between Democrats and Republicans but the little difference that there is could make a lot of difference to a lot of people. After eight years of George Bush, however, this sets the bar woefully low.

So why the excitement?

Well, the potency of moments like those in Charleston on Martin Luther King Day - as fleeting and fatuous as they may seem - keep being replicated in their own way all across the country. Every time his multigenerational, racially mixed crowds get together, it seems like they are creating a new reality from whole cloth.

The potential lies not so much within Obama himself but his supporters. He has managed to rouse constituencies long believed to be either indifferent or inactive and energise a political culture that, notwithstanding the Democratic victory in the 2006 midterms, has been all but moribund since 2004 - particularly among the young and the black who increased their share of the Democratic primary electorate by 25 percent this year compared to 2004.

Electorally he could mount challenges in areas where Democrats have not been competitive for decades. These are early days yet. A McCain victory is perfectly possible. The ferocity of the Republican attack machine is known; the depths of racism and xenophobia in the US have yet to be fully tested. But so far polls have Obama defending all the states that Kerry won narrowly, taking many that Bush won narrowly and challenging hard in many that Republicans did not believe they ever would have to defend, like Virginia, North Carolina and even Mississippi. Those demographics that he did not win in his battle against Clinton now appear to be backing him. Depending on which polls you see he leads McCain among women by between 13 and 19 percent. Kerry won women by 3 percent. Among Latinos he beats McCain by 62 percent to 28 percent; Bush took 44 percent. When it comes down to it voters seem to hate war, unemployment, anti-abortion legislation and repossession more than they hate black people. Who knows how many fiery preachers, fist bumps and "baby mama" swipes could yet change that.

But for now voter registrar offices in largely black areas of Louisiana recently had to hire new staff and work 12-hour days following a voter registration drive by Democrats. Shortly before the primaries in Oregon he drew a crowd of 75,000. In South Carolina he polled more votes by himself than the entire Democratic field the year before. According to my aunt in Houston he transformed my cousin from a couch potato into a local precinct captain.

He has been described as running a grassroots movement. This is only half true. It is certainly grassroots. At web-driven meet-ups people get together, independent of the campaign. On Facebook his candidacy has a life of its own. One of the reasons he won every caucus state bar one - where people have to show up at a certain time to register their support in a process that can take hours - is because his supporters are far more dedicated and far better organised at a local level than Clinton's.

But it is not a movement. As of yet, it has no purpose or meaning beyond getting him elected. In its current form once he wins or loses it will cease to exist. It operates not from the bottom up but from the top down. The change he refers to is principally a change in leadership. The chant "Yes we can", in essence, means yes he can.

This could change. Obama has raised expectations way beyond anything he has actually promised. His candidacy has been made possible by the huge well of energy unleashed after the despondency of the Bush years; it has also acted as a vehicle for that energy which had nowhere else to go. The central issue is how that symbiotic relationship between his huge and hopeful base and his candidacy will develop over the coming months - whether and how a political base will emerge from this electoral moment. The ability and even desire of his supporters to carve out a role that is independent of the campaign will be limited during an election year - not least after two terms of Republican misrule when the prospect of a McCain victory is real. But that does not obviate the necessity that they do so if they want to see their expectations met.

Most left criticisms of Obama's policies are valid and necessary but on their own miss the point. Those who want him to adopt a more progressive agenda must first establish a progressive movement that he can turn to. That is by no means assured. But it is at least possible. And after the last few years that possibility alone represents a significant advance.