Sunday, January 27, 2008

Barack Obama: The Great Communicator

Despite having too many kids, too hard a job, and too much literary ambition to reasonably add political commentary to the mix, a fit of Obamania has drawn me back to The Bluest Fist. I'll likely be blogging here in much smaller doses than I did in 2000 or 2004 but I'll be blogging nonetheless.

Last night Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary, doubling the number of votes won by Hillary Clinton. I'll save my specific feelings about these two formidable candidates for another time. Right now I'd like to focus on a remarkable moment in their last debate which happens to have coincided with Obama move toward a landslide victory.

Just a few days before the primary, Obama led Clinton among black voters by 53-21 percent. For those who thought that black voters would automatically vote for a black candidate Obama's number was fairly unimpressive and reflected the Clinton's strong relationship with the African-American community. Among white voters Obama was polling as low as 10% and this seemed to confirm the belief of those who thought white South Carolinian Democrats would not vote for a black candidate.

There are undoubtedly a number of factors that contributed to a shift that landed Obama a very solid 24% of the white vote (in a three person race, Hillary got 36%) and over 80% of the black vote. The moment I'm interested in is a gifted bit of political Signifyin' from the January 21 debate. Media member Joe Johns asked the question and the exchange went like this:

JOHNS: Right. The Nobel Prize-winning African-American author, Toni Morrison, famously observed about Bill Clinton, "This is our first black president, blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." Do you think Bill Clinton was our first black president?

OBAMA: Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does. And I think that's well earned. Like John, one of the things that I'm always inspired by -- no, I'm -- this I'm serious about. I'm always inspired by young men and women who grew up in the South when segregation was still taking place, when, you know, the transformations that are still incomplete but at least had begun had not yet begun. And to see that transformations in their own lives I think that is powerful, and it is hopeful, because what it indicates is that people can change. And each successive generation can, you know, create a different vision of how, you know, we have to treat each other. And I think Bill Clinton embodies that. I think he deserves credit for that. Now, I haven't...
OBAMA: I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities.
OBAMA: You know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.

Johns's was a trick question. It should have been impossible to answer correctly with Obama either coming off as the "Jesse Jackson candidate" asserting his black authenticity, or the cosmopolitan "Bill Bradley Candidate," picking off a few wealthy and well-educated whites by looking "beyond race" but losing the faith of many black voters in the bargain and failing to attract middle and lower-class whites as well. That represented the hope and strategy of Clinton guru Mark Penn and this "micro trends" philosophy of political organizing -- and Johns had seemed to help them out here. But, in a moment that should be written about for a long time in places other than this blog, Obama shot the gap. His answer involved a three part strategy.

First, he struck a magnanimous chord, celebrating Bill Clinton as an example of a young southern white male baby boomer's journey to racial enlightenment. However, in doing so he used Bill Clinton's story in the service of Barack Obama's canbdidacy: "what it indicates is that people can change." This is the central touchstone of Obama's message -- he said it over and over in last night's victory speech. Here he was speaking to blacks and whites as the nations reconciler.

If he had only done that it would have been a great answer. What he did next made it mind-blowingly good.

First he made the joke about the need to judge Clinton's dancing abilities. The tone in which he employed this stereotype suggested to me that he was speaking to white voters, saying, hey, I don't take this stuff too seriously, I don't take myself too seriously and I don't mind joking about it. (And besides, what a silly question!)

Then, he suggested that a series of tests could prove whether or not Clinton was "in fact a brother." This too was a joke -- except it was also a real test that Clinton by definition failed. Obama pronounced "brother" as "brutha". Only he could do that (Urban Dictionary defines the term as "A well dressed and presented black man that, is very popular with tha girls and can get any woman he wants.") If Clinton ever said "brutha" it would come off horribly. Because, low and behold, Bill Clinton is a white male. In that one moment, Obama was saying to the black audience, "Get real. Bill Clinton can't even pronouce the word brutha."

I would bet a nickel that if you went back through the transcripts of John F. Kennedy's run for the 1960 presidency, you would find similar acts of Signifyin' -- coding to Catholics that would drive them to the polls that simultaneously, almost magically, cooled the anxieties of Protestants. The magic involves embodying the one and the many through voicing. It takes a once in a generation -- at most -- political communicator to pull this off. And right now we're all staring one in the face.


Post a Comment

<< Home