"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: June 2008

Monday, June 30, 2008

Other “Obamas” in Black America (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Two weeks ago, I pointed out that there is an emergent crop of Black American leaders who is actuated by a new kind of politics, the kind of politics that has propelled Barack Obama to the epicenter of America’s politics. It’s a politics that is anchored on a calculated choice to rise superior to the politics of racial grudge that has been the enduring trademark of Civil-Rights-era Black American leaders.

I identified these nascent corps of Black American politicians as consisting of Deval Patrick, the current governor of Massachusetts in northeast United States; Harold Ford Jr. a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Tennessee; Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark in the state of New Jersey; and Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC.

There are certainly many more as yet scarcely known but nonetheless potentially influential Black American politicians who fit the label of post-Civil-Rights-era leaders. However, it is Obama, Patrick, Booker and Fenty that the mainstream American media is celebrating now. And if you know anything about the power of the media to make and/or mar people, better watch out for these guys.

It seems safe to say, at least for the moment, that if another “Obama” will arise from Black America, it would most likely be from among these remarkably cosmopolitan black politicians whose political tentacles extend beyond their racial comfort zones. Apart from their appeal to diverse racial groups, they are also all lawyers who, like Obama, began their public-service careers in community organizing rather than in national civil rights organizations. Most of them also attended Ivy League schools.

Interestingly, they are all Obama’s close friends and confidants. (Obama, in fact, has been caught on at least two occasions plagiarizing lines from the astonishingly declamatory Gov. Deval Patrick, a fact Hillary Clinton wanted to cash in on to end Obama’s political career but for the pro-Obama bias in the mainstream American media.)

So far, apart from Obama, only Patrick has won an office that required large numbers of white voters to support him. (The state of Massachusetts is a little over 90 percent white and only about six percent black).

Patrick, the 51-year-old, Harvard-educated descendant of enslaved West Africans, was elected the first ever black governor of the politically consequential state of Massachusetts on November 7, 2006 and formally assumed office on January 4, 2007. (Massachusetts, home to the city of Boston which calls itself the “hub of the Universe,” is the nucleus of northeastern United States and in many ways the cultural and political pacesetter of the whole nation. It’s equivalent, in many respects, to Kaduna in northern Nigeria or, if you like, Ibadan and Enugu in western and eastern Nigeria).

Gov. Patrick was born in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago (where Obama and his family currently live) in the Midwestern state of Illinois to a dysfunctional family—an absent father who left his wife and children to play music in New York and who had children outside wedlock, and a struggling mother who was barely educated.

When Patrick announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts in 2005, nobody gave him a chance. This was understandable. He was confronted by seemingly unconquerable obstacles. First, there was no record of a black governor in Massachusetts, and blacks are a mere six percent of the population of the state. Second, like Obama, he was faced with the daunting challenge to wrest the nomination of his party from such time-tested, well-heeled, and thoroughly entrenched (white) Massachusetts Democratic politicians as Tom Reilly and Chris Gabrielli.

But Patrick’s superior organizational acumen, his appeal to young white voters who had never participated in politics before, his “post-racial” persona, his oratory (which, by the way, far dwarfs Obama’s) and, of course, increased levels of white tolerance in the country coalesced to give him twice as many pledged delegates as his closest rival, Tom Reilly.

In the general election, he faced the reigning deputy governor (Americans call them lieutenant governor), Kerry Healey, a Republican, who ran because the governor at the time, Mitt Romney, didn’t seek a second term because he wanted to run for president on the platform the Republican Party. In other words, Patrick was up against what in Nigeria we call “the power of incumbency.”

Patrick received an overwhelming 56 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race that had three other formidable contestants. He finished 20 percentage points ahead of the then incumbent Republican lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, making him the second elected African American state governor in United States history, the first being Douglas Wilder who was elected Virginia State governor in 1989. Patrick is also the third African American to serve as a United States state governor, the first being P. B. S. Pinchback, former Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana who ascended to the governorship of Louisiana in 1872 consequent upon the impeachment and removal of his predecessor, Henry Clay Warmoth.

Similarly, he is one of two current black governors, along with David Paterson of New York, the former lieutenant governor of New York who became governor this year after his boss resigned from office in the wake of damming revelations that he patronized prostitutes while he maintained a fa├žade of moral toughness in public. For the first time in U.S. history two black governors serve concurrently.

It should be mentioned, though, that both Wilder (who is still alive) and Pinchback (who is, of course, dead) are/were so light-skinned they could easily pass for white people—at least to African eyes. They have pale skin, long noses and straight hairs, and would certainly be called oyinbo/bature if they were to visit Nigeria or muzungu if they were to be in East Africa. But Gov. Patrick can easily get lost and not be isolated in any village or city in Nigeria—or anywhere in black Africa. I actually consider him the first elected black governor of the United State, if you define blackness from an African perspective.

(I know this is a problematic thing to say, given the complexity of racial identification in the United States).

Well, what of Booker, Fenty and Ford? Their story is not nearly as dramatic as Patrick’s. The electoral successes of Booker and Fenty are not in anyway earth-shattering. After all, Newark, the main city in the state of New Jersey in northeast United States, is over 50 percent black, and Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, is over 65 percent black. It’s just that the public personas and personal politics of these young Black politicians have been interpreted by the dominant media as conforming to the “postracialness” of Obama and Gov. Patrick.

In the case of Ford, he came very close to being elected to the U.S. Senate. But he lost very narrowly to his (white) Republican rival thanks, in part, to suggestive ads by his opponent that featured a white actress—a throwback to the days when white males were in mortal fear of losing their women to black males.

In the stories of these young Black politicians, one thing stands out in bold relief: Civil-Rights- era politics has had its day. It engendered Affirmative Action policies (equivalent to Nigeria’s Federal Character or Quota policies) and many other policies on positive discrimination, which laid the ground work for the “Obamas” to emerge on the American national scene. But this kind of politics is now obsolete and self-limiting.

If there is one lesson to be learned from Obama’s meteoric rise to national political stardom, it is precisely the futility of the politics of racial resentment by Black American politicians.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Obama may defeat McCain handily in November

Farooq A. Kperogi

I apologize that I am not concluding the article I started last week. I will, all things being equal, conclude it next week. This week, I have decided to share with you a thoroughly insightful comparative analysis of the electoral chances of Barack Obama and John McCain in the forthcoming November presidential elections. It was first published on politico.com, one of the most influential mega political blogs in the United States.

The article, originally titled “Many historians see little chance for McCain” is written by David Paul Kuhn and was the most emailed story on the Internet on June 15, 2008. If you have already seen the story, I apologize again. But given my experience with Internet access since I have been in Nigeria over a month ago, I imagine that many of my readers probably have had no chance to read this story.

In addition, a few Nigerians who have read my column these past few weeks have questioned what they consider my rather lavish optimism about Obama’s prospects to become the first nonwhite president of the United States of America. Although I have made no pretences about my emotional investment in Obama’s candidacy for the president of the United States for purely symbolic reasons, I truly think his chances are very bright.

Fortunately, my optimism is shared by analysts at polico.com, a blog that was previously anti-Obama.

Enjoy the thoughtful, fair-minded analysis in the article and reach your own conclusions. See you next week.

One week into the general election, the polls show a dead heat. But many presidential scholars doubt that John McCain stands much of a chance, if any.

Historians belonging to both parties offered a litany of historical comparisons that give little hope to the Republican. Several saw Barack Obama’s prospects as the most promising for a Democrat since Roosevelt trounced Hoover in 1932.

“This should be an overwhelming Democratic victory,” said Allan Lichtman, an American University presidential historian who ran in a Maryland Democratic senatorial primary in 2006. Lichtman, whose forecasting model has correctly predicted the last six presidential popular vote winners, predicts that this year, “Republicans face what have always been insurmountable historical odds.” His system gives McCain a score on par with Jimmy Carter’s in 1980.

“McCain shouldn’t win it,” said presidential historian Joan Hoff, a professor at Montana State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. She compared McCain’s prospects to those of Hubert Humphrey, whose 1968 loss to Richard Nixon resulted in large part from the unpopularity of sitting Democratic president Lyndon Johnson.

“It is one of the worst political environments for the party in power since World War II,” added Alan Abramowitz, a professor of public opinion and the presidency at Emory University. His forecasting model — which factors in gross domestic product, whether a party has completed two terms in the White House and net presidential approval rating — gives McCain about the same odds as Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and Carter in 1980 — both of whom were handily defeated in elections that returned the presidency to the previously out-of-power party. “It would be a pretty stunning upset if McCain won,” Abramowitz said.

What’s more, Republicans have held the presidency for all but 12 years since the South became solidly Republican in the realignment of 1968 — which is among the longest runs with one party dominating in American history. “These things go in cycles,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The public gets tired of one approach to politics. There is always a measure of optimism in this country, so they turn to the other party.”

That desire for change also tends to manifest itself at the end of a president’s second term. Only twice in the 20th century has a party won a third consecutive term in the White House, most recently in 1988, when George H.W. Bush replaced the term-limited Ronald Reagan, who was about twice as popular in the last year of his presidency as President George W. Bush is now.

But the biggest obstacle in McCain’s path may be running in the same party as the most unpopular president America has had since at least the advent of modern polling. Only Harry Truman and Nixon — both of whom were dogged by unpopular wars abroad and political scandals at home — have been nearly as unpopular in their last year in office, and both men’s parties lost the presidency in the following election.

Though the Democratic-controlled Congress is nearly as unpopular as the president, Lichtman says the Democrats’ 2006 midterm wins resemble the midterm congressional gains of the out-party in 1966 and 1974, which both preceded a retaking of the White House two years later.

One of the few bright spots historians noted is that the public generally does not view McCain as a traditional Republican. And, as Republicans frequently point out, McCain is not an incumbent.

“Open-seat elections are somewhat different, so the referendum aspect is somewhat muted,” said James Campbell, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who specializes in campaigns and elections.

“McCain would be in much better shape if Bush’s approval rating were at 45 to 50 percent,” Campbell continued. “But the history is that in-party candidates are not penalized or rewarded to the same degree as incumbents.”

Campbell still casts McCain as the underdog. But he said McCain might have more appeal to moderates than Obama if the electorate decides McCain is “center right” while Obama is “far left.” Democrats have been repeatedly undone when their nominee was viewed as too liberal, and even as polls show a rise in the number of self-identified Democrats, there has been no corresponding increase in the number of self-identified liberals.

Campbell also notes that McCain may benefit from the Democratic divisions that were on display in the primary, as Republicans did in 1968, when Democratic divisions over the war in Vietnam dogged Humphrey and helped hand Nixon victory.

Still, many historians remain extremely skeptical about McCain’s prospects. “I can’t think of an upset where the underdog faced quite the odds that McCain faces in this election,” said Sidney Milkis, a professor of presidential politics at the University of Virginia. Even "Truman didn’t face as difficult a political context as McCain.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Other “Obamas” in Black America (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Barack Obama may well become America’s next president. But will his epoch-making success be no more than a mere flash in the pan, a once-in-a-life-time, never-to-be-repeated opportunity for black Americans? Or are there other black American politicians that have the potential to replicate the success of Barack Obama?

In other words, are there other “Obamas” in Black America? I’m using Obama here as a trope for a transcendent black American politician whose appeal cuts across all racial and social demographics.

To answer this question, it’s useful to account for Obama’s unprecedented, some would add unanticipated, appeal to white Americans who have traditionally been leery of black politicians.

Is it because of his mixed-race heritage? As Obama himself likes to say, to alliterative effect, he is the scion of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. Well, if his mixed-race filiation were the only reason for his mass appeal, most black American politicians would have been successful too because many of them are also biracial, even multiracial, Americans.

A recent analysis of the DNA pool of African Americans showed that over 75 percent of them have more than a modest tincture of white blood in them. A vast proportion of them, in fact, have as high as 70 percent white genes in them. By contrast, only about 25 percent of white Americans have traces of black blood in them.

Indeed, there are many African Americans who are genetically “whiter” than Obama. Take, for an example, Louis Farrakhan, head of the controversial Nation of Islam and probably the most hated—and feared—black figure in white America today. He has a higher percentage of white genes in his DNA than Obama who is only half white. And Louis Henry “Skip” Gates, arguably the most celebrated living African-American scholar, was mystified when he discovered recently that he is actually less than 25 percent “black” in his DNA; over 60 percent of his genes are Irish.

These are mere representative samples of the complex multiracial identities of a vast majority of black Americans—a reminder of the painful history of the serial rape of black American women by white slave owners during slavery and of the then unlawful marriage between black and white Americans, which was derisively called miscegenation.

So Obama’s biracial identity cannot fully account for his success at appealing to white voters where other black Americans had failed. So what could it be? Could it be because the sheer force of his oratorical power is irresistibly hypnotic? Well, oratory is, in fact, an abiding hallmark of Black America. That’s why in America, it is redundant (some even consider it insulting) to describe an African American as “articulate” because it is a displacement of the norm to find an inarticulate African American. Oratory is a collective gift to Black America.

And that’s why Obama’s oratorical skills, impressive as they are, are scarcely anything to make a song and dance about in Black America. In fact, a prominent African American politician recently controversially described Obama’s rhetorical skills as “mediocre.” This characterization is certainly unfair, but I have lived long enough with African Americans to know that Obama’s skills at delivery and verbal ornamentation are not outstanding—by the standards of Black America, that is. So, although Obama’s oratory is mesmerizing to white America and to Africans like me, it doesn’t even come close to being one of the best in Black America. That eliminates his skills in grandiloquence.

So what is it then? It seems to me that Obama’s appeal to white America is fairly and squarely traceable to his self-conscious transcendence of factious racial politics. Of course, this transcendence of race, often called his “postracial” image, is complemented by the progressive breakdown of racial prejudice in much of white America. Without the ever-increasing levels of racial tolerance among the majority white population, Obama’s story would never even have been possible, however much he chose to be “postracial.”

I know I am exposing myself to the risk of being accused of reductionism—reducing a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon to a single explanation. However, I am not discounting the many other valid explanations for Obama’s phenomenal appeal to American voters who would otherwise not have voted for a nonwhite candidate. My point is that Obama’s studied postracial politics, aided in no small measure by the growing racial open-mindedness in America, is the crowning explanatory clincher for his extraordinary success.

As I have said in previous weeks, black America is an unbelievably angry community. I have never in my entire life seen a more angry people than black Americans. They are not only deeply resentful at and cynical about America; they are also hypersensitive and thin-skinned about race. The most innocuous jokes about race (or so it strikes me) from white people often sparks off intense, frenzied reactions.

(This is obviously a messy generalization that ignores many nuances and exceptions).

This is in part a response to the history of brutal racial oppression in America that Black Americans have been victims of and in part a consequence of being perpetually stuck in nursing the wounds of the past.

It’s got so bad that when white Americans find an American black who isn’t angry and who doesn’t make them feel guilty for past historical injustices, they are actually surprised. Many of my white American friends and acquaintances have told me that, for them, one way to tell an African from a Black American is that Africans don’t seem angry.

John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told the New York Times recently that "White people are weary of the kinds of black people who are dedicated to indicting whites as racists. So, to be 'too black' is to carry an air about you that whites have something to answer for." By this logic, Obama isn’t “too black.”

The only area where black anger can find untrammeled expression without having white America’s hackles up is in music, particularly in hip-hop, where approximately 70 percent of listeners are white, according to Dr. Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard.

One of Obama’s greatest appeals to white America is that, in addition to his many strengths, he doesn’t come across as an angry black man who is smoldering with the desire to retaliate for the past mistreatment of African Americans. Well, it may be said, and with some justification, that because he is not descended from the Black Americans who suffered unspeakable racial oppression, he can afford the luxury of “postracial” politics.

Nevertheless, many social observers say a shared attribute of African Americans who have overcome time-honored hurdles and made great strides, whether in business, entertainment or politics—Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Obama, etc—is that they transcend the politics of racial grudge in the manner of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Cynthia McKinney, etc.

Notions of the eternally angry black man have conduced to a mind-set in white America that American blacks are not patriotic. Marcus Mabry, writing in the New York Times of June 8, 2008, noted that “For decades, pollsters have found that one of the prejudices white Americans commonly hold about African-Americans is a belief that blacks are less patriotic, despite serving in the armed forces in greater proportion than their share of the population.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was born and brought up in racially segregated Birmingham, in the state of Alabama, appeared to be addressing that racial prejudice against Black Americans when she was asked to respond to Obama’s epochal speech on race in the wake of the controversy generated by his former pastor’s divisive sermons.

“What I would like understood as a black American,” Rice told The Washington Times, the notoriously conservative competitor to the Washington Post, “is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn't love and have faith in them, and that's our legacy."

Now, are there examples of African-American politicians who aren’t “angry,” who have moved beyond the Civil Rights era, and who have been accepted by white America? Yes.

They include Deval Patrick, the governor of the predominantly white state of Massachusetts; former House of Representatives member Harold Ford Jr. from the state of Tennessee who would have been a U.S. Senator now had he not lost his election by a very narrow margin; Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark in the state of New Jersey; and Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC.

To be continued

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why an Obama-Clinton ticket will not fly

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Long before Barack Obama became the color bearer of his party, there have been suggestions in a section of the American media that an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket would be an unbeatable “dream ticket.” But here is why I think such a ticket would, in reality, be a nightmarish ticket, one that has the potential to imperil Obama’s chances of winning the presidency.

1. The first obvious reason why such a ticket would be problematic is that it represents too radical a shift for a still largely conservative country like America. A nonwhite president AND a female vice president would rudely jolt the settled certainties of American political life and, most importantly, alienate white males who constitute the majority of the U.S. population.

Since this election is about symbolism in more ways than has ever been the case in America’s political history, the Democratic Party cannot afford to push white male voters to the margins, although they have always been the main characters in the movie of American politics. I think electing an African American male as president is transformational enough; having a female vice president along with a black president is expecting—or demanding— too much in one election year.

This is especially important because since about the late 1960s, the white male in America has been the object and subject of so much vitriol from historically oppressed groups—women, blacks, etc—for understandable and, I think, justifiable reasons.

This fact has spawned feelings of indignation among many a white male. The white male, once the unquestioned standard by which everybody was measured, is now a traumatized hegemon who is under unremittingly vituperative attacks from every angle. But the pang of these unceasing attacks is especially felt by lower-income, minimally educated white males who have not historically partaken in the privileges of middle- and upper-class white society. It was no surprise that this category of people was reluctant to vote for Obama in the just ended primary elections.

If white males who constitute a huge chunk of the U.S. population feel estranged by the Democratic Party, it is probable that they will opt to support their kind, John McCain, in protest. This important demographic and social category needs assurance that power—or notion of power— is not irretrievably slipping away from them.

2. The ticket is doomed because Hillary Clinton is too strong-willed and too ambitious to be second fiddle to anybody, not least an Obama whom she had derided as not having passed the “commander-in-chief test.”

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his campaign slogan, which he later advisedly dropped, was that a vote for him was synonymous with “buying two for the price of one.” And some commentators actually said the Bill Clinton administration was an unofficial co-presidency, with Hillary Clinton as the co-president.

An unofficial former co-president who fancies herself as the repository of American presidential politics isn’t likely going to be submissive (as vice presidents should be) to a rookie politician like Barack Obama. What is more, with Hillary as Vice President, Obama would have to contend with the disruptive prospect of a tripartite presidency involving himself, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton.

3. Because Obama’s opponent is a retired naval officer who is widely regarded as a war hero by Americans, he needs a running mate with a distinguished military background. This is especially important because Obama has never served in the U.S. army—unlike many past American presidents. What is more, there are still lingering doubts about his patriotism and pairing with Hillary will only exacerbate this because Hillary herself had repeatedly called Obama’s patriotism into question.

4. Both Obama and Clinton are U.S. senators who have never had any kind of executive experience. Bringing together two senators to run for the office of president and vice president of America will be counterproductive, especially because, historically, American voters tend to prefer people with previous executive experience to be their president. Fortunately, Obama’s opponent is also a senator with no previous executive experience.

From all indications, McCain will choose a former governor as his running mate to compensate for his lack of executive experience. To be competitive, Obama would also need a former governor, preferably from the South, who has a military background.

5. Choosing Hillary as a vice president will vitiate the very basis of Obama’s wild popularity among, especially, young voters. He began his campaign on a promise to represent a decisive break with old, divisive Washington politics, which Hillary Clinton in many ways typifies.

Again, Obama’s campaign message from day one was “change we can believe in.” This message resonated very powerfully with many Americans. Since Hillary Clinton is the very antithesis of the new kind of politics he professes to advocate and embody, choosing her as vice president will cast Obama as a guileful, opportunistic politician who cozened Americans into a false sense of comfort with his politics when he was seeking votes for the nomination of his party.

6. Hillary Clinton has the dubious honor of being America’s most divisive political figure in recent times. People either intensely love her or viscerally hate her; it’s rare for people to be neutral about her. That’s not the kind of figure to have as a vice president. Her deficits will certainly detract from the strengths associated with Obama. And Obama risks losing a significant chunk of his hardcore supporters if he chooses Clinton as his vice president.

7. Obama and Clinton simply don’t share any chemistry. As an Associated Press writer noted recently, when Obama was closing in on the nomination, Hillary kept exposing his weaknesses and portraying him as second-best. “On [Obama’s] night of triumph,” the writer said, “she stole [Obama’s] thunder by refusing to concede and by dropping hints of a vice presidential slot. Where is the chemistry, the trust, the compatibility?”

8. There is widespread belief that Clinton’s desire to be Obama’s vice president is informed by a "Bad-stuff-happens" maneuver, instanced by her gaffe about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. While defending her decision to remain in the race when it was obvious that she couldn’t possibly close in on Obama’s lead in the delegate count, she made an impolitic reference to the assassination of the late JF Kennedy’s brother, a reference that was interpreted to mean that Obama could be assassinated before the primary season was over. Many Americans were outraged by this.

Interestingly, many prominent Democratic elders are hostile to the idea of having Clinton on Obama’s ticket. An early opponent of an Obama-Clinton ticket is Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who is the first female to occupy that position.

Similarly, Former Democratic president Jimmy Carter, in a (London) Guardian interview, said it would be a mistake for Obama to have Clinton as his vice-presidential nominee.

"I think it would be the worst mistake that could be made," said Carter. "That would just accumulate the negative aspects of both candidates." Carter justified his view by citing opinion polls showing 50 percent of US voters with a negative view of Clinton, adding: "If you take that 50% who just don't want to vote for Clinton and add it to whatever element there might be who don't think Obama is white enough or old enough or experienced enough or because he's got a middle name that sounds Arab, you could have the worst of both worlds." You just can’t beat that logic.

The former president also said: "What [Obama] needs… is a person who can compensate for his obvious potential defects, his youthfulness and his lack of long experience in military and international affairs." Based on this reasoning, Carter suggests that Obama consider Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who hails from his own state of Georgia. "That would be my preference, but there are other senior Democrats who would have similar credentials to Sam Nunn," he said.

Nevertheless, it must be mentioned that Hillary Clinton can also bring a lot of strengths to Obama—such as attracting women, Hispanics and low-income, rural white males to Obama—but such strengths are offset by the ponderous liabilities she will bring. What is more, in line with the tradition of American politics, Clinton would ultimately campaign for Obama and persuade her supporters to vote him—whether or not she’s nominated the vice presidential candidate.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Black Man in the White House: Can Obama Make it? (II)

Farooq A. Kperogi
As I said last week, it’s not possible to exhaust all the reasons why I think Obama’s chances to become America’s first non-WASPish (WASP, if you didn’t know, stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) president are bright. I will discuss only a few more this week.

Perhaps the surest sign that Obama can survive the furious and ferocious crucible of American politics and emerge victorious is his incredible capacity to recuperate from life-threatening political traumas with grace and renewed vigor, a feat that earned him the epithet “Teflon candidate.” (Teflon is a substance used to cover the surface of cooking utensils, etc in order to prevent extraneous substances from sticking to them).

On several occasions, I had had cause to suspend my optimism on Obama’s chances. First, there was this widely circulated picture of him in traditional Somali garb, surrounded by an elder who appeared to be initiating him into some cult. The picture had no context— and no caption. It was, in essence, a blank slate provided for everybody to inscribe the fears, anxieties and suspicions that lurked in the deep recesses of their minds about Obama.

Some Americans who had insisted that Obama was, in fact, a Muslim who was merely pretending to be a Christian because he wanted to be America’s president found a “confirmation” of their suspicions in the picture. Mass-circulated smear emails even suggested that paparazzi surreptitiously took the picture when Obama was being secretly initiated into an al-Qaida cell.

It turned out that the picture was taken when he visited Kenya, along with such high-profile Americans as a U.S. military general, after his election into the U.S. Senate sometime ago. In the course of the visit, he was honored by ethnic Somali elders in eastern Kenya and was fitted out in the traditional attires of the people.

When it came to light that the picture was mischievously released by the Hillary Clinton campaign to a right-wing blog, Obama harvested tremendous political sympathy from it.

The controversy generated by the publicizing of his pastor’s controversial sermons was perhaps the biggest threat to his candidacy. Suddenly, the American media that had seemed so irresistibly obsessed with him turned against him. I was so troubled by the unbelievably negative publicity that attended this controversy that I actually canceled my cable subscription. I wanted to save myself the emotional injury of seeing a promising brother go down because of guilt by association.

But he used the “opportunity” of that controversy to give a well-received speech about race in America. The controversy, rather strangely, also worked to reverse initial doubts about his claim to being a Christian, at least among people who are open-minded. The truth is, Obama was neither a Muslim nor a Christian until 1988. His mother—and maternal grandparents—were non-religious. So was his absent Kenyan father who, though born a Muslim, was a “confirmed atheist,” according to Obama. Obama’s paternal grandparents also practiced a syncretism of Islam, Catholicism and traditional African religion. So Obama was distrustful of religion until 1988 when Reverend Wright, the pastor whose sermons put him in political hot-water recently, converted him to Christianity.

This fact, coupled with his middle name (Hussein), has given many conservative and not so conservative Americans cause to doubt his commitment to Christianity. (Americans who are concerned about his middle name don’t even realize that Obama’s first name is also a Muslim name. Barack, as many Muslims know, is the Arabic or, to be sure, Semitic word for “blessing.” The last name of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is only a variation of Obama’s first name). Plus, in the past, Obama had publicly confessed to being fascinated by the Muslim call to prayer and had expressed sentiments that are now interpreted as pro-Palestinian—and therefore “anti-Semitic.”

However, it does seem that doubts about Obama’s commitment to the Christian faith are subsiding now. So are concerns about his patriotism, concerns that came to the fore on account of his refusal to wear the flag lapel pin and failure to put his hands across his chest when the American national anthem was being sung as a prelude to a presidential debate sometime last year.

Sorry I digressed. Obama also has the distinction of having a well-oiled, brilliantly coordinated network of uncommonly dedicated supporters that invest not just their money and emotions but also their time, logistics and organizational acumen into his electioneering. Many American commentators admit that the level of dedication that Obama supporters devote to his campaign has no parallel in recent memory in America. Obama’s political opponents often deride these remarkably dedicated supporters as “Obamamaniacs.”

Among these “Obamamaniacs, interestingly, are a lot of cross-over Republicans, often called “Obamacans” (that is, Obama Republicans) who will rather vote for him than vote for John McCain. McCain’s problems are many and various, but I won’t bore readers by stating them here. It suffices to say that two gaffes he made earlier in his campaign have continued to haunt him. For instance, he once said, in a moment of extreme excitement, that he wouldn’t mind if the U.S. remained in Iraq for 100 years. He also said he didn’t know anything about the economy—at a time when the country is on the brink of a recession, if it’s not already in it.

Similarly, one of the factors that redound to Obama’s electoral formidability is the vast financial resources at his disposal. These vast financial resources were raised, and continue to be raised, largely from regular, everyday Americans who contribute as little as $15 to his campaign.

When Obama began his run for president, the main concern then was how he could possibly raise the resources to finance a presidential campaign, being a rookie politician who is not connected to big corporations and special-interest groups.

But he not only proved skeptics wrong, he confounded them with his phenomenal and revolutionary fundraising skills. He has raised stupendous amounts of money from the Internet from millions of ordinary Americans who contribute so little to his campaign that they can afford to keep giving without feeling financially burdened. These little amounts collectively add up to a lot.

It’s been said that Obama has raised more money for a presidential primary than any presidential candidate in American political history. While Obama is awash with a lot of cash for the primary and general elections, by contrast, Hillary Clinton, once considered the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, is deep in the throes of debt.

Well, now that it seems fairly obvious that Obama might be the next American president, what should we expect? Sadly, I think we should temper our enthusiasm with a little reality check. As scholars of American politics have noted, the American presidency is a very conservative institution. This fact limits what a president can do. American presidents are merely symbolic heads whose actions are circumscribed by the requirements to operate within rigid, time-honored institutional structures that don’t lend themselves to radical, revolutionary transformation.

The significance of Obama’s presidency, I think, is in its symbolic significance, especially for many African Americans and Africans who have internalized notions of their inferiority. Nothing more.

I actually fear that an Obama presidency will give rise to what sociologists call the crisis of rising expectation—or even worse. This can only lead to a lot of tensile stress for Obama himself.

And I predict that because he would want to assure white America that he is the president of all Americans, black Americans may actually be worse off under his presidency than in previous administrations. Africans should expect the same.

I also think he may yet turn out to be one of America’s most belligerent presidents. And this why: he is already dogged by insinuations and whispering campaigns that he is a closet Muslim with suspect patriotic credentials. In order to prove that he is as patriotic as any American can be, he might feel compelled to be exaggeratedly exhibitionist in his patriotism. And there is nothing more dangerous than forced, exaggerated nationalism.

Truth be told, when I rein in my emotions and allow reason to take control of my thought-processes, I actually shudder at the prospect of an Obama presidency. I fear that, at best, it will be like any previous American presidency, at worst needlessly cautious and pernickety when it deals with historically oppressed groups, and excessively, even hyperbolically, hawkish in its Middle East foreign policy. I hope and pray I am wrong.

The significance of Obama’s presidency, in the final analysis, lies not in what it will deliver but in what it represents. I wish I ended on a happier note.

Black Man in the White House: Can Obama Make it? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This is a dizzyingly exciting period in American politics, a period in which Barack Obama, a man of part African ancestry, looks poised to rupture age-old racial barriers and become America’s first nonwhite president.

Two enduring questions that many Nigerians have asked me are: Can Barack Obama, a black man, be president of the United States given the history and nature of race relations in that country? Can he even win the nomination of his party? My straightforward answer is, to inflect Obama’s own campaign slogan, yes he can.

It is, of course, presumptuous, even arrogantly self-indulgent, for anyone, not least a sojourner like me, to be this declarative and cocksure about the political fortunes of a candidate in a political climate as notoriously kaleidoscopic as America’s. But my optimism is informed not by mere instinctive racial solidarity with an amazingly dazzling brother, but by my assessment of the objective, material realities of contemporary American politics.

Needless to say, like most people of African ancestry all over the world, I am profoundly emotionally invested in Obama’s presidential candidature. I have followed, and continue to follow, the highs and ebbs and the frissons and anxieties of his presidential bid with more zest than I have ever committed to any political contest.

When Obama visited Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (the church in which the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached when he was alive) on an oppressively frigid day in January this year, I persuaded my wife and my daughter who had paid me a visit at the time, to brave a subzero degree temperature, drive several miles, and wade through thick crowds of animated people just to see him.

In spite of our best efforts, however, the church had filled up to capacity before we got there. But we watched him speak on wide screens erected outside the church premises amid a vicious and unforgiving cold that literally deadened our bodily sensations and rendered us immobile.

There are several reasons why it is safe to assert that the prospect of an Obama presidency has transcended the realm of wishful thinking to a real, graspable possibility, but I will only discuss a few here. For starters, it is almost certain that Obama will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. Not even a bleeding cynic will dispute that. His lead in the delegate count is practically insurmountable and there is not the faintest inkling that the Democratic Party will countermine the will of the people and hand over the nomination to Hillary Clinton.

Now, what are his general-election chances?

One of Obama’s greatest strengths or, if you like, appeals, ironically, is his race. Or, to be sure, the intricate tapestry of racial identities that he so amazingly and powerfully embodies. American conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh once satirically called him a “Halfrican American”—at once a play on the phrase “African American” (the term by which many, perhaps most, Americans of African ancestry like to be called) and a reference to the fact that he is an American (by virtue of being born in America—by a white American woman) who is half African on account of being the biological son to an absent Luo father from Kenya.

It also hints at the fact that he is not historically African American since none of his ancestry is even remotely traceable to the legion of West Africans enslaved and brought to the Americas in the 16th and 19th centuries, although he is “black” by America’s racial typology, is married to a historic African American, and has immersed himself in the African American cultural universe as an adult (thus, he is “half” African American—and “half” white American).

What this all means is that in Obama many white Americans desirous of assuaging the historic guilt of the enslavement of Africans, and the attendant ill-feeling it has spawned in Black America, see an opportunity for racial reconciliation. Here is a man who is culturally white, having been raised by his white grandparents, but who self-consciously chose to reconnect with his paternal black roots and has now become the most important black American today.

What is more, although he has now been accepted as black (after initial, largely media-induced, reservations in Black America about whether or not he is “black enough”) he defies, even subverts, the stereotypical construction of the American black male in the typical white American imaginary—perpetually angry, congenitally slothful, wracked by debilitating feelings of low self-worth, underachieving, prone to violence, etc.

So a majority of white Americans find him to be a safe, non-threatening black male whose distinctive cultural and biological exceptionalities endue him with the capacity to serve as a bridge between white and black America. Added to this is the seemingly insignificant but nonetheless remarkable fact of Obama’s genetic relationship to many ex-American presidents from his maternal genes.

A recent analysis of his DNA showed that he is distant cousins with more past American presidents than any living American president—or presidential candidate. His distant cousins include Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison. Other Obama cousins include British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Civil War General Robert E. Lee. (Obama is, in fact, the 11th cousin of current President George Bush and the 9th cousin of Vice President Dick Cheney!). That doesn’t hurt a black man one bit.

Obama himself is acutely aware of his racial singularities. That’s why he has run on a “postracial” platform, a platform that was severely, if briefly, threatened when video clips of his pastor’s controversial, incendiary, and racially tinged sermons became public knowledge sometime ago.

I think, in the final analysis, it is a testament to the phenomenal strides in racial tolerance in the American society that a man sired by an African father even stands a chance to be president in a country whose constitution once called Africans “three-fifth of a man.”

But it will be overly simplistic and unfair to limit Obama’s acceptability to white America to historic guilt over slavery or to the fact of his remote ancestral linkages with the icons of white America. I am only bringing this up because many people tend to think that Obama’s race is, or will be, his major encumbrance. I am not, of course, discounting the fact that there are still many Americans who will never vote for a nonwhite person as president, but such people are, in the main, becoming endangered species in America.

I also think that many Americans believe electing Obama as president will send a strong and clear message to the world that America not only evangelizes the gospel of democracy to the rest of the world but also practices and lives it.

I have heard many Americans say that a “power shift” to Obama on January 2nd, 2009 will have the same kind of historic and symbolic significance as the March 4, 1797 handover of power to John Adams, America’s second president. On that day, George Washington, America’s first president, became the first person in the world to effortlessly hand over power to someone who was not his blood relation.

More importantly, Obama’s entry into America’s national politics has inspired an unprecedented number of hitherto apathetic, apolitical young Americans to get involved in politics. These new entrants into American politics, often dubbed “the Obama generation” by the American media, will be crucial in deciding who gets elected as America’s president in November this year.

Conservative Republicans have dominated the U.S. presidency largely because young people, who tend to be liberal and Democratic, don’t vote. But courtesy of the unexampled ways in which Obama’s entry into national politics has electrified and energized American young men and women, for the first in several years, the youth may turn out to vote in large numbers in the November presidential elections. And this bodes well for Obama.

It was Winston Churchill, Obama’s distant cousin, who once famously said that “a young person who isn’t a liberal has no heart, and an old person who isn’t a conservative has no brain.” This is obviously a broad stroke, but it essentially captures the connection between age and political affiliation.

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