Wednesday, September 05, 2012

How Obama Became President

On the eve of President Obama's second nomination it seems like a good time to look back at how he became president in the first place.

Dinesh D'Souza touched on this in 2016. The first black president was never going to come from the civil rights movement. Those leaders only appeal to a limited audience and their implied message to white America is "you are racist". When Jesse Jackson ran in the 1980s he was asked if he was a black man who happened to be American or an American who happened to be black. Jackson admitted that he was black first and American second. Many pundits acted as if that was the dumbest question ever but the President of the United States needs to represent all Americans, even if he is a member of a minority.

Enter an obscure candidate for the Senate with a strange name. The first I heard of Barack Obama was the announcement that a "black Democrat who isn't afraid to talk about God" was going to give the keynote address in 2004. It was a magnificent speech. Obama talked about what unites us instead of divides as a country.By the end of the speech many people wished that he was leading the ticket instead of John Kerry. The speech gave Obama the reputation as a great speaker and an aura that is still with him. The Daily Show took this literally. They showed footage of the Senate's first session with Obama having a halo. He was going to be the great leader who would bring us out of the wilderness of George Bush. For the next few weeks the press hung on Obama's every word, expecting Solomon-like wisdom to drip from his lips.

At this point, all that most people knew about Barack Obama was from his keynote speech. Regardless, that and his early opposition to the Iraq war was enough to launch his presidential campaign.

More of Obama's background trickled out. We learned about his father who returned to Kenya while Barack was a child, leaving him to be raised by a white mother and grandparents. In fact, this was stressed as was their Kansas roots. It didn't matter that his grandparents moved to Seattle while his mother was very young. The idea was to make Obama seem less alien. The message that his campaign delivered was, "Yes, he has dark skin but he was raised by whites. He isn't threatening."

The big appeal was that you could feel virtuous by voting for someone with dark skin but he shared your values.

It helped enormously that Obama was a blank slate. He never hid the fact that he was a progressive but that term had fallen out of favor for years so most people had no idea what he meant. Even Libertarians who had become disenchanted with the Republicans after eight years of Bush's big-government policies saw Obama as a pragmatic centrist.

The election was not a sure thing for Obama. Hillary Clinton began the campaign with much more money and a better organization. She also did much better in general elections, especially in large states. And, as the first serious woman candidate, voting for her also made people feel virtuous.

Obama's candidacy was saved by two things. Clinton made a serious miscalculation and assumed that she would have the nomination wrapped up after Super Tuesday. As it turned out, she was ahead but not enough. Obama still had some campaign funds left so he could continue his campaign while Clinton had to suspend her campaign long enough to raise more funds. Just as important, the next string of primaries were mainly caucuses which favored Obama. By the time Clinton was back in the race Obama had run up a long list of primary wins that gave him an aura of inevitability.

The primaries ended without a clear winner. Clinton argued that more people had voted for her since she had won nearly all open elections and she had won every primary that she had seriously contested. It didn't matter. Obama had more delegates and just seemed inevitable. By then, school children were signing anthems to Obama.

No one cared that he was still in his first term as a Senator or that his autobiography makes it clear that he had been a Marxist. The only crisis came when sermons from his church became public. At first Obama claimed that he had no idea that the Reverend Wright had ever said such things. Eventually he passed the incident off as being racially-based and gave a speech in which he claimed that his grandmother was afraid of black men. After that, any mentions of his radical associations was treated as yesterday's news.

No one really cared who Obama really was. They just wanted the buzz that came from voting for the man they envisioned him to be.

Now, the Democratic National Convention is trying to resurrect that image of Obama the Redeemer. Will voters allow themselves to be swept up in the excitement again or will they see Obama as he really is - someone who is highly partisan and ideologically to the left of the vast majority of the nation?

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