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Resolving The Obama Tension

Ever since Barack Obama kicked off his presidential campaign, it seemed to me that the tension at the heart of his campaign was this: He's been running--sometimes overtly, sometimes just implicitly--as a transformational candidate who'd transcend petty division and usher in a new era in American politics. Yet his entire intellectual persona--from his minimalism and suspicion of grand theories, to his conscious choice to reject his mother's mid-twentieth-century universalism and embrace his identity as a black man in Chicago, to his "almost Burkean" respect for social norms--seemed like that of a man who'd be rightly wary of such a campaign, were it being waged by someone other than himself. You can't be both Burkean and transformational, or at least not very easily.

Obama's speech today wasn't perfect: It was too long, and at times his delivery seemed overly stiff and aloof. And it remains to be seen how effective it will be politically in distancing himself from Jeremiah Wright--something tells me that controversy isn't going away anytime soon. But the speech was exceptionally well written (Obama apparently wrote the entire thing himself), and more importantly, it provided some answer to the question of how he resolves that central tension. To me, the most important passage in the speech was this:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.  I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me.  And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Obama isn't pretending to be able to transcend these things. He's not offering himself as a candidate who'll change society so that people like his grandmother no longer shy away from black men walking down the street. Such a thing may not really even be possible. Nor, it's clear, does he somehow want to render partisanship or ideology irrelevant: In addition to being about race, the speech contained quite a bit of distinctly liberal economic rhetoric. But, then, in what sense is he a transformational figure? Says Cliff May: "Fewer will see him as they did: a different breed of politician, one who transcends race and party, an agent of beneficient and desirable 'change.' "  Isn't he misleading the country, then, when he talks in such terms?

Maybe a little. But there's a difference between denying the reality of social division and simply choosing to emphasize the positive instead: Things can get better, little by little. The "unity" that Obama frequently invokes is really just a more articulate, slightly deeper reformulation of the traditional campaign pablum that what Americans share in common is more important than that which divides us:

I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country.  This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

Perhaps Obama's real achievement is that he takes this usual boilerplate rhetoric and makes it sound fresh and exciting--indeed, that he pulls off the remarkable trick of making it the centerpiece of a campaign. That doesn't seem like something that ought to be condemned. Why, after all, would one choose run a campaign explicitly predicated on the notion that ideological, regional, and class divisions will never be overcome and should be openly embraced? Shouldn't we want our politicians to be both clear-eyed about the persistence of social cleavages and optimistic about the possibility of narrowing them?

--Josh Patashnik