The Meaning of a Milestone

Obama exceeded expectations. Can he raise them, too?

By Ellis Cose


Web Exclusive

Jun 5, 2008 | Updated: 4:58  p.m. ET Jun 5, 2008

It all began with a speech at the Democratic National Convention during which a political newcomer named Barack Obama introduced himself as “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.” It was July 2004, and that was so very long ago. Since then Obama has convincingly shown that America is more than willing to carve out a place for him. Along the way he has rewritten the book on campaign financing and fostered hope for a new brand of American politics.

“That’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?” The election Obama was referring to in his keynote address was the 2004 presidential race. That vision, offered on behalf of John Kerry, ultimately became the foundation of Obama’s own candidacy—which hit a huge milestone earlier this week when he nailed down the nomination as his party’s presidential candidate. “Tonight,” he proclaimed, “we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another.”

The question now, of course, is whether that second journey can end as triumphantly as the first, whether Obama’s vision of a new politics can survive the attacks that will surely come his way—not just from John McCain but from many of his less genteel surrogates and supporters, who will try to force Obama’s candidacy to bear the weight of every stereotype about his party: that is too liberal, too weak, too naive to navigate this very hostile world. And because he is who he is, Obama also has some special stereotypes to contend with. Many believe he has gone too far way too fast. (In what has become a hit video on YouTube, an overwrought Clinton supporter denounced him as nothing more than an “inadequate black male.”) Other voters continue to believe that he is a Muslim or a Muslim sympathizer. Or that he is likely to be too accommodating to certain groups, particularly blacks, and may not be all that understanding of others, especially working-class whites.

Writing in the Huffington Post last month, historian Sean Wilentz accused Obama of “nothing less than usurping the historic Democratic Party, dating back to the age of Andrew Jackson, by rejecting its historic electoral core: white workers and rural dwellers in the Middle Atlantic and border states.” Others have argued that Obama is unlikely to garner as much Jewish support as Democratic candidates traditionally have won. Apparently it was such concern that led Hillary Clinton to assure the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Obama “understands what is at stake here.” (Obama also appeared before the group and promised to “never compromise” Israel’s security.)

Some of the concerns about Obama will almost certainly subside as the nation becomes more comfortable with him and as he continues to reassure Americans that, in most essential respects, he is not that different from other mainstream Democrats. There is no reason to believe he cannot ultimately win over many of those working-class whites who, in many state primaries, overwhelmingly went for Clinton. Nor is there any reason to believe that the legions of the women who flocked to Clinton’s cause will automatically shift their support to McCain. But Obama, indisputably, has a great deal to overcome, much of it rooted in preconceptions about who and what he is.

A decade and a half ago I wrote a book, “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” that documented a widespread feeling among upper-middle-class blacks that the glass ceiling could simply not be breached, that certain positions (Fortune 500 CEOs, among them) were simply out of reach. History has proved that that ceiling can indeed be breached. Obama’s candidacy is so exciting, in part, because it offers the promise of a future where no aspiration is out of bounds. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga saw worldwide implication in the rise of Obama, whose success, Odinga said, “will inspire us all to break the shackles of ethnic preoccupations in determining political leadership.”

But the lesson of the first phase of the campaign is that the promised future is not yet here, and that symbolism can cut many ways. The racial symbolism that gives his black supporters hope, for instance, gives some others pause. And to succeed, Obama’s campaign, though inherently rich with symbolism, has to be about much more than symbolism. It must make the case that his success will not merely lift aspirations for certain groups but will improve the lives of a majority of Americans, including those who are suspicious of him.

Obama has already shown he is capable of exceeding expectations. His challenge is now to show he is equally capable of raising them, of helping his doubters to see the promise in him that his supporters take for granted.