Obama: wind of change or feeble breeze?

Kirk Leech reports from Miami and Washington DC on how the Democrats are parasitical on Republican disarray.

Kirk Leech

Topics USA

‘Obama, es un negro madre fucker.’

The shout from the back of the room was not really unexpected, given that I was in a Cuban barbershop in Miami’s Little Havana. I was avoiding the oppressive June heat by enjoying a wet shave on Calle Ocho, the main drag in the Cuban district. It’s an area long associated with the Cuban-American experience, most of it wound tightly around the Republican Party and long-held hostility towards the Democrats. The heckler was, like the rest of us, watching re-runs of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton closed meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

My barber, cutthroat razor in hand, quieted the pundit. I asked him what he thought of Obama. ‘You know, and I never thought I’d say this, I hope he wins. Getting a negro elected, it tells you all you need to know about why I came here in ’93.’ Outside, the flame on the memorial to those who died in the bungled attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, flickered – and I couldn’t help but wonder if a wind of change is blowing across America.

Watching John McCain and Obama address audiences across the US, and then listening to pundits dissect every speech, deconstruct every turn of phrase and even analyse the candidates’ body language, one is left with the distinct impression that the Republicans can’t win this presidential election, but the Democrats might still lose it. McCain, even before the race to the White House has really heated up, looks and sounds his age. Maybe it’s hard not to when you are pitched against the youthful Obama. But more importantly, the Republican Party, or the Grand Old Party (GOP) as it is also known, is looking very old, and anything but grand.

The two-term Bush presidency has left the Republican Party intellectually exhausted and in dire need of new, strong leadership. The issues that gave the neoconservatives a sense of mission and direction, and which date back to Ronald Reagan’s time in the White House – ‘spreading democracy’ around the world, fiscal conservatism, tighter immigration policies, and a potpourri of social conservatism (anti-abortion, pro-family, religious activism) – no longer have the same purchase with voters. Over 80 per cent of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track – the worst figures since 1991, when the New York Times and CBS first started asking people how they felt about the direction of America (1).

McCain’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate reflects the GOP’s loss of direction. It was noticeable that when McCain addressed Republicans in Ohio recently, he chose to speak not about social values but about the economy (2). In the past, McCain has talked of the Christian Right (sometimes called the Evangelicals), long-time backers of the Republicans, as ‘agents of intolerance’, and it is no longer a given that they will block vote for the GOP. Nearly 80 per cent of white Evangelicals voted for Bush in the 2004 election, but now, especially amongst the young, there is evidence of a haemorrhaging of support away from the Republican Party (3).

Some of them are being seduced by Obama; others, who just don’t like or trust McCain, may simply not vote. When Republicans recently announced that McCain had met with Evangelical preacher Billy Graham, Obama’s people countered that Obama had already met Graham’s son, Franklyn, and 30 other Evangelical leaders in Chicago (4). It is becoming clear that Obama is courting the Evangelical vote once loyal to Bush.

There is a palpable sense of panic amongst some senior Republicans. In a much-discussed memo following the Republican Party’s shock loss in May of a Mississippi congressional (an area it was assumed they could not lose), Tom Davis, Republican representative for Virginia, sounded the alarm. After three consecutive special elections for House of Representatives seats were lost, Davis suggested that ‘members instinctively understand that the Republican brand is in the trash can. I’ve often observed that if we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.’ (5) He is sugesting that the Republican Party is heading for an election meltdown.

So is Obama a shoo-in, then? It’s obvious that his candidacy has energised many who had given up on politics. Rolling Stone magazine captures this mood well: ‘And then comes along Barack Obama, with the kinds of gifts that appear in politics but once every few generations. There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lays a resolute discipline. It’s not just that he is eloquent – with that ability to speak both to you and to speak for you – it’s that he has a quality of thinking and intellectual and emotional honesty that is extraordinary.’ (6) A rather sycophantic review for sure – but there is undoubtedly real excitement amongst many Americans about the potential election victory of an African-American, and about George Bush’s exit.

A group of young Democratic Party activists, angry with the way some Republicans have used Obama’s middle name ‘Hussein’ to suggest that he is a closet Muslim, have changed their own middle names to Hussein. It is ironic that while some of his supporters have adopted this ‘I am Spartacus’ stance, Obama has attempted to distance himself from Muslim associations. His campaign workers even ushered two headscarf-clad women out of camera view at a recent rally in Detroit, and Obama has cancelled a media appearance with Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim congressman (7).

Part of Obama’s appeal is his vow to remain an idealistic outsider who would never shift his positions for political expediency. In the past few weeks, however, he has veered very much to the centre. He has discarded public campaign financing after years of trumpeting it. He supported a compromise on wiretap legislation that gives telephone companies retroactive immunity for working with government agencies. He said he wouldn’t wear a US flag pin because it was a cheap substitute for ‘true’ patriotism – and then started wearing one anyway. And, of course, he has ditched his troubled pastor of two decades after saying that he could no more abandon the pastor than his own granny.

In a sense, these are all small potatoes that will quickly be forgotten. It’s common in American presidential races for candidates to move to the centre after winning their nominations. McCain has also changed his position on some issues, like offshore oil drilling and immigration. But the danger for Obama is clear; Democratic success is driven more by Republican failure than by an enthusiastic public embrace for what the Democratic Party itself stands for. The Democrat-controlled Congress has an even lower approval rating than George Bush (8). Aside from the enthusiasm for Obama, the Democrats are still the party that couldn’t defeat a very unpopular George Bush running for a second term in 2004 (though having John Kerry as candidate surely qualifies as a handicap).

Obama’s real difficulty in winning the election is the accurate perception that he is somewhat of a liberal elitist. His comments in April about small-town voters – ‘they cling to guns and religion’ – were a clear signal of the real political divide in America today. Those who favour ‘God and guns’, essentially the white working class, inhabit small-town America in red states long won over by Republicans. If Obama is to win the election, he has to prise at least some of these voters away from the Republicans. He can’t win any of those who would never vote for a liberal African-American, but others affected by economic recession and fed up with the war in Iraq may shift.

It is, however, far from clear what Obama really believes in beyond the soundbites, the mantras about change and ‘ditching the politics of the past’. As Dorothy Wickenden asked in a recent piece in the New Yorker, ‘What’s the Big Idea?’ (9). Obama’s speeches are light on ideas and heavy on narrative. It may be that some of his supporters will be shocked at what an Obama presidency, should he be elected, will actually entail. There is a strong chance that some may suffer the same kind of disillusionment that Tony Blair supporters experienced in the UK after the landslide election victory of New Labour in 1997.

Back in DC, the art and architecture in the city captured for me both the desire for change in America, and just how illusory change could turn out to be. I visited the Aaron Douglas exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Douglas, an African American, was an important part of the circle of artists and writers that formed the Harlem Renaissance. I was struck by his 1936 painting, ‘Aspiration’ , showing three African-Americans, silhouetted in a style commonly used by Douglas, on a pedestal (10). Below them, the hands of slaves, still chained, struggle upwards in the search for freedom. The three figures hold in their hands the tools of science as they point to a gleaming new city in the future. The message is clear: knowledge and science are liberating keys to the future for African-Americans. Even Douglas couldn’t have imagined that some 70 years later an African-American would be standing on the threshold of the presidency of the United States.

Yet outside, I was struck by another, more sobering image. The newly renovated courtyard that links the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery has a new glass roof designed by the British architect, Norman Foster. The roof has a soft billowing form, reminiscent of clouds. At some points, it dips to meet four columns; at other points, it swells, giving expanse and shape to the courtyard. The roof feels as though it is about to lift off, to be carried over and beyond the National Mall. Of course, this is an illusion; no wind, not even a Washington storm, could affect such structural change. Obama supporters, expecting a wind of change to blow through this country and to transform it forever, may also discover that the country remains firmly stuck where it is.

Kirk Leech is project manager for the Research Defence Society (RDS) and is currently undertaking postgraduate research at King’s College London.

(1) Back to the Center, New York Times, 29 June 2008

(2) John McCain’s Ohio disconnect, LA Times, 9 June 2008

(3) Are Young Evangelicals Leaving the Republican Party?, Lang Report, 12 May 2008

(4) McCain Meets With Evangelist Billy Graham And Son, Huffington Post, 29 June 2008

(5) Rep. Davis Paints Bleak Picture for GOP,, 15 May 2008

(6) A New Hope, Rolling Stone, 20 March 2008

(7) Obama Supporters Take His Name as Their Own, New York Times, 29 June 2008

(8) Back to the Center, New York Times, 29 June 2008

(9) What’s the Big Idea?, New Yorker, 30 June 2008

(10) Aspiration, Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist

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Topics USA


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