Friday, January 4, 2008

Obama's Big Score

A day since his big win at the Iowa Caucus, and it seems many people have caught Obama fever. The media, long fascinated with him, have now turned him into their darling--for the time being at least. Pundits gush on about how he represents change, and how his win now has caused an earthquake in politics. On the conservative right and the progressive left, there is glee at seeing the well-oiled Clinton machine sputter and break down in the face of the Obama victory. And of course, the theme of "history in the making" and "race" are endless in their veracity and variety. Many black people I know who were at most lukewarm towards Obama are declaring they just might vote for him--as if the elections are just around the corner. My own two cents on the Obama win, how it happened and what it might mean--or might not mean.

*In full disclosure, I am neither for nor against Barack Obama. While I haven't chosen any candidate as my own, I tend to fall in much more strongly behind John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, whose anti-corporate, anti-war and anti-poverty stances resonate closer to my own.

How and Why He Won

Barack Obama's victory in Iowa was hard fought. For weeks he had been trailing frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the polls. But a great deal of campaigning by volunteers descending on Iowa did much to help out. So did money. According to CMAG, a firm that tracks political advertising, Obama spent a whopping $8.3 million in Iowa alone--over $2 mil more than Hillary, and three times more than John Edwards. Obama was also helped out by his key supporters, the under 30 crowd. For instance, after much controversy regarding their involvement, Iowa college students (many of whom are not native to the state) showed up in high numbers for Obama. So did many first time caucus-goers, some of them recently graduated from high school. Altogether, they made up a record fifth of the overall vote, and overwhelmingly supported Obama. Besides the youth vote, Obama got a sharp boost from independents who were most likely to be seeking change. Add in Democrats disaffected by Hillary Clinton's anti-Bush but status quo message, and Obama found fertile ground in Iowa. Another strong factor, ignored by much of the media, was the unexpected support Obama received from fellow Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich. A strong symbol of the progressive left, Kucinich told his supporters to pick Obama as a second choice if they did not think him viable. While some pundits initially scoffed that this could hurt Obama, it may have helped him.

What Does It Mean?

Hard to say however what much of this means. Listen to the media, who have made Obama over as their new-found prince, and you'd think the election was over. But there are numerous primaries to go, some small, some large. This is still anyone's race to win. Obama is certainly to get a bump, and possibly a surge, from his win in Iowa. And the campaign of his main contender, Hillary Clinton, is no doubt in heavy damage control and revamping mode. The next big battle comes in mere days in the New Hampshire primary, where--so far--Clinton is ahead. Expect however the fight to get plainly more nasty as another Obama win could spell disaster, if not doom, for Hillary. More than a few pundits and Caucus go-ers pointed to the remarkable ability of Obama to get the white vote in Iowa; it remains to be seen if he can do so elsewhere. What the Caucuses have done is caused two presidential hopefuls among the Democrats to drop out--Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden. Who they will throw their support behind is, thus far, unclear. As for Dennis Kucinich, he has made it clear that his support for Obama was an "Iowa only thing"--and he intends to compete earnestly in New Hampshire.

Watch South Carolina

An interesting primary to watch will be South Carolina. That's because it will be the first time we'll get some idea of what Obama's standing is in the black community, at least a sampling--half of the South Carolina Democratic primary is black. Iowa on the other hand is a majority-white state, with blacks making up less than 3% of the overall population. His support there came from not just the young, but the often very lily-white. While some pundits seem to take his standing among black voters for granted, that would be a mistake. In South Carolina, before the Iowa Caucus, Obama was trailing far behind Hillary Clinton when it comes to the black vote. The gap had shrunk from earlier estimates, but it still needs quite a boost. Like just about everywhere else, it seems black South Carolinians don't know what to make of Obama. Some naturally rally to him, especially younger black voters, as they see him representing both racial accomplishment and historical change. The more firmly established black political cadre however are much more reluctant, deeming Obama an unknown who they fear will never be able to win the national white votes needed to gain the presidency. In their eyes, a vote for Obama is probably the best way to assure a Republican takes the White House. Then there are the black left, who find Obama's stance on the issues barely different from that of Hillary Clinton--citing his closeness to the military establishment, corporate interests and vague policy definitions--and opt for more progressive white male candidates like John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich. However, after the Iowa win, alot of black doubters may come around for Obama. Watching South Carolina might give us some clue.

The End of Race?

That's the big mantra out of the political pundits, whether they are conservative or moderate or even liberal. Barack Obama, with a deemed "post-Civil Rights" air, is being hailed as the man who can single-handedly end racism. There is a popular idea that if white America can vote for this black man as president, it must mean the last few hundred years of American racism will somehow disappear. Or, better put, it will simply hide American racism where it doesn't have to trouble white eyes and minds. As conservative commentator George Will put it, Barack Obama's win will "bring down the curtain on the long running and intensely boring melodrama 'Forever Selma,' staring Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton." In one stroke, George Will managed to disparage the entire Civil Rights Movement as a boring blip in American history, and give voice to what many white minds seem to be contemplating. Barack Obama has become the black candidate who is simultaneously "post-race." As Chris Matthews of MSNBC's hardball said endearingly in one of his never-ending series of man-crushes, "No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain't there with this guy." Obama is thus celebrated for appealing to white people without making them feel guilty--or even responsible--for anything that happened in the past or even our present. Partly its his own doing, positioning himself to win over whites, and at times pushing attitudes towards black disfranchisement more similar to Bill Cosby than to Dr. King. Obama's April 2007 speech to the legislative black caucus in South Carolina for instance, where he joked that "a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing garbage out of their cars," went over like a lead balloon. Since then, he's refashioned himself to walk a fine tight-rope, where he can lightly appeal to black voters concerns that he can relate to them and still keep his majority white base. Yet there's no doubting that for many white voters, his appeal may be in their idea that his presidency can wash away their sins and those of their forefathers. What that means for the rest of us, I don't know.

Keeping Things in Perspective

Lost in all the media talk about Obama's first place win and Clinton's third place loss, is the 2nd place winner--John Edwards. Disliked by the media for his strong anti-corporate and anti-poverty stances, Edwards has been the marginilized underdog in this race. Though heavily outspent by both candidates, he managed to pull to 2nd place riding a populist message that is starkly different than that of Obama or Clinton. Chances are high, they both realize this and will try to adopt much of Edwards message for their own. Question is, will anyone believe it? For all the talk of this being a message to the other Democratic candidates, unlike the GOP Caucus where the margins of victory where profund, Obama, Clinton and Edward took unequal "thirds" of the vote. That means each one did not get the support of close to or more than 2/3rds of the Democratic voters in Iowa. This election is still anyone's to win, or lose. And we're a long way from the convention. Whatever the case may be, however it turns out, more than likely Democratic voters will vote for whomever wins the primary. Because the GOP alternatives are simply too unpalatable to contemplate.

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