An Obama-Carter Reality Check

Obama’s candidacy, even if he loses, has already had a huge impact on American perceptions.

By Ellis Cose

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From the magazine issue dated Jan 14, 2008

For months people have been asking whether Barack Obama’s race made him unelectable. In Iowa, he put an entirely different question on the table: are Americans ready to vote for idealism over hard-edged realism, for hope over experience? By framing his candidacy in such a way, he makes talk of racial limits, or racial voting, almost irrelevant—and makes a virtue of his biggest supposed weakness, his inexperience in actual governing. The question, of course, is whether that framing can deliver him to the White House and, if it does, whether it inevitably invites disappointment.

We have arrived, to use Obama’s phrase, at what may be a “defining moment in history.” Many Americans are fed up with what they see as a cynical, even corrupt, Washington establishment. There is a hunger for a new direction, and for a knight with a shiny new lance.

This is a moment similar to where the country was in 1976, when another largely untested idealist won Iowa’s Democratic caucus. The nation, discombobulated by Watergate, was ready to turn to a born-again Baptist who believed the world could be a more moral place. At the time, Jimmy Carter was the face of the New South. When inaugurated as Georgia’s governor in 1971, he proclaimed the dawning of a new day. “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over,” Carter said. He went on to streamline Georgia’s government, while opening opportunities for women and blacks. He imbued his presidential campaign with equally high expectations. “For America’s third century, why not our best?” he asked. But he foundered in office and was turned out after one term with an approval rating of 34 percent, having laid the ground for the Reagan Revolution.

Obama has set expectations even higher than Carter. In his rousing victory speech, Obama praised Iowans for writing themselves into history. The self-congratulatory rhetoric is certainly merited. Obama’s candidacy, even if it ultimately collapses, has already had a huge impact on American perceptions. He has proved that a black man is not necessarily a fool to aspire to be president of the United States, which, odd as in may seem in the wake of Obama’s triumph, was something no previous generation could take for granted.

Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign, called Obama’s win in Iowa “a victory for the country, for national reconciliation … It signals to voters in Super Tuesday states that he is electable … He’s proven he can win a general election.” For Brazile, that was a moment worth savoring; for in winning so convincingly in an overwhelmingly white state, Obama showed the promise of America. “Those voters put aside whatever racial fears they had,” said Brazile. “They saw the person, not the color … Last night that state was colorblind.”

All the celebrating notwithstanding, Obama is still a long way from wrapping up the nomination, much less the election. For all his allusions to harmony and change, he has not yet demonstrated that we have ceased to be “a collection of Red States and Blue States,” as he put it, but are one, united America.

Indeed, in the end, the messages of change and unity may find themselves in conflict. For as beautiful as the dream of one America may be, the reality is of a country where income disparities are growing, not narrowing, and where the very privileged have less and less in common with those who are constantly struggling. Two generations after the major rights were fought and won, we are still a nation whose inner cities and barrios are full of people with no real sense of a better tomorrow. In an era when incarceration is seen, in certain neighborhoods, as the nearly inevitable fate of young men, talk of one, united, bighearted America can seem like something of a joke. Their problems will not be solved, nor their outlook notably changed, simply because America elects a new president—even one who is young, attractive, black and runs on a platform of national unity.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was marked by his inability to translate his idealism into legislative victories—even with a Democratic Congress. And ultimately, the symbolism of a purer, better way ended up seeming hollow.

It is quite possible that Obama can succeed where Carter failed, but not without helping America to embrace the fact that changing is a lot harder than talking about it; and that being an agent of change ultimately means shaking up things for many people who are quite comfortable with the status quo.

In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama writes, “[W]hat strikes me most when I think about the story of my family is a running strain of innocence, an innocence that seems unimaginable, even by the measures of my childhood.” In large measure, he has run a campaign based on innocence, on the notion that hope and faith can overcome virtually any obstacle. It is a message that is so transcendent and so appealing that it has made him larger than race, bigger than his own biography. And it may take him all the way to the White House. It will be fascinating to see how the message changes if he does indeed win the grand prize—and the innocence must be set aside.