Is America ready for a black president? This has always been the ultimate question that not just Americans, but many people across the world have pondered for so many years. Would a black man ever become a president of the United States? Even though the likelihood of this happening was very slim, many still doubted that they would live long enough to witness it in their lifetime. The underlying cause is not a puzzle for someone even bothering to raise the question. The obvious response has been woven into the fabric of the American society, mostly known as a racially divided country. But on November 4, 2008, Barack Hussein Obama, far beyond any expectations, "breaks the ultimate U.S racial Barrier"
by becoming the first African American President elected. I will try in this article to see whether or not race was a determining factor in the outcome of this election by thoroughly examining the main issues raised during the political campaign.
In this 2008 election, the country is faced with two wars which affect American people in all walks of life; one domestic, which concerns a failing economy, and another, which is the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In these troubling periods of uncertainty, one man, with one slogan, "yes we can", brought back to my mind the famous poetry of Wendell Berry:
"In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
wars spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover."
This man, with a funny-sounding name, Barack Hussein Obama, reached out across the nation, in the midst of these crises, to call on the great conscience of the American spirit to transcend the crucial issue of race and ethnicity which has divided the country for so long, and to come together as one nation. “E pluribus unum”: "Out of many, one."
In the 2004 Democratic National Convention held in Boston, Senator Obama seized the opportunity, as the key note speaker, to deliver an astonishing speech summing up his profound call for unity.
"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us -- the spin masters,
the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ’anything goes’. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.
The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an ‘awesome God’ in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
The ghost of division was around to haunt the 2008 American election, despite his 2004 call. As in past elections, the race factor, playing a significant role in the process of decision- making, is still a strong argument in many instances. Highlighting the different contenders in the primary with respect to their racial and gender characteristics can easily lead us to draw the conclusion that the battle was going to turn into a debate about race and gender. The making of the three candidates with Barack Obama, an African American, and Hilary Clinton and John Edwards, both white, already set the tone of the match where the contenders are divided along the color and gender lines.
As the underdog in this race, he remarkably won the heart of many Americans with an unmatched charisma and incredible ability of capturing his audience - and, surprisingly, he started winning state after state. In the case of South Carolina, a reporter wrote:
"But the most telling factor that swept Obama to victory was delineation by race, where the Senator received 78% of the black vote. Edwards received 40% of the white vote (and only 2% of the black vote), with Obama getting 24% (Clinton received 36%). Black men supported Obama by a crushing 80%. Black women voted almost as strong with 78%. White men supported Edwards (45%). White women voted for Clinton (42%)." These numbers speak so clearly about the race factor as accounting for the overwhelming black vote cast for the African American candidate, Barack Obama (78%). Even black women, despite their gender, turned their back against Hilary Clinton by giving Senator Obama 78%. On the other hand, votes for the two white candidates totaled 76% of the white vote leaving only 24% for Obama.
The division of the race was so obvious in the split vote between whites and blacks,to the point where the white candidate, Hilary Clinton, argued in one of her interviews with USA Today, that she has "a much broader base to build a winning coalition on." She did not hesitate, for the purpose, to even cite an Associated Press analysis "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hard working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." It is eminently clear that Hillary's key argument to the super delegates was an exploitation of racial division to position herself as the candidate best suited to face the white Republican candidate, John McCain, in the fall. This racially divisive tactic implicitly aimed at excluding Obama as a serious strong contender because of the color of his skin. It fed the argument that a black man does not have any chance of winning over a white candidate because of the traditional white voting preferences. Throughout the whole campaign, Obama's contenders made every attempt to turn the race issues into smears and a negative campaign.
They first tried to connect him with his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whom he knew for 20 years, by bringing to light Wright’s negative comments about the American government. In a series of clips broadcasted by Fox News, Wright has accused the American government of "starting the AIDS virus" and being the "number one killer in the world." In one of the sermons he delivered, he stated that "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." And, he" called on God to damn America." Under these circumstances, Obama was compelled to give a speech about race. In the speech he eloquently delivered, Obama distanced himself from his pastor by characterizing his remarks as being divisive "We've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." He continued his speech by stating that the urgency is elsewhere, and what the country mostly needed in this period of hardship is unity to overcome the challenges and the adversities. "Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all."
Senator Obama admitted in his speech on race that race is an issue in the campaign. He mentioned the fact that his identity was put in question.
"This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either too black or not black enough. We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well."
After taking a strong stand on race relations, the polls showed Obama taking a lead on his rival Hilary Clinton, and successfully becoming, at the end of the primaries, the first African American nominee for the Democratic Party. He succeeded by conveying his message so eloquently to Americans regardless of their skin color, their ethnicity, their age and political background.
In the presidential race, Senator John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, tried unsuccessfully to tie Obama with Bill Ayers, a founder of a radical movement involved in a plot of bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon. "Our opponent though, is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." Another attempt tried to connect Obama with Rashid Khalidi, an anti-Israel activist. This consistent pattern of character destruction was clearly geared to spread confusion and fear in the white voters' minds. It was also a diversion from the real issues facing the country.
It is interesting to note that these ugly tactics are not new in American politics. In the 1988 presidential race, Michael Dukakis was blamed for granting ‘week-end passes’ to convicted felons such as the African American, Willie R. Horton, who was serving life in a Massachusetts prison. Horton ended up committing a double murder after violating his 48 hour furlough, backed by Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis. According to Steve Holland, "An attack ad on television played a role in defeating Dukakis in 1988 and showed how effective negative campaigning can be."
Senator Obama has learned well his lesson by taking, as opposed to Dukakis, a very strong and pro-active reaction against these smears. When his pastor's controversial speech was brought to light, for example, Obama took a stand by making his race speech in which he condemned the divisive rhetoric of his long time friend and pastor Jeremiah Wright. And when the terrorist connection was raised, he quickly demarcated himself from it in the debate.
Barack Obama also learned from the mistakes made by Jesse Jackson, who turned everything into race issues. Obama’s strategy, by contrast, consisted of unity and reconciliation for the common goods. He presented himself not so much as the black candidate, but a candidate who happens to be black with the main goal of closing the gap by uniting the country for one purpose. "I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation or victimhood generally," he said in his speech. As far as his identity was concerned, he identified himself as "the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas" with "brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents.”
These words revealed that his approach was universal. So, his appeals to a young and a new generation of voters did not go unheard. Not merely were they excited about Obama. Far more, they also passionately rode along with him all the way to the voting booth, making sure that victory would be elegantly granted to their candidate.
By examining briefly "CNN exit polls,"
it is clear that the young voters, the color blind generation, were instrumental in the outcome of the election. They turned out in large numbers and cast 66% of their vote for Obama. An overwhelming majority of Hispanics (67%) and African Americans (95%) voted for him.
He also won on major issues, like the economy, the war in Iraq and health care. But the economy, by far, overshadowed all the other issues. Consequently, Senator Barack Obama connected the 72 years old Senator McCain with the current president George W. Bush, whose popularity drastically declined because of his poor performance in the White House. When Obama stated that McCain "voted in the Senate more than 90% for Bush", McCain retorted that "I am not President Bush; If you want to run again President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
Unfortunately for McCain, this pertinent response was uttered too late. It could have weakened Obama's effort for connecting him to Bush if used earlier in the campaign. It was clear that the American did not want four more years of Bush.
In regards to the Wall Street market crisis, Senator McCain made the following declaration "The fundamentals of our economy are strong."
It is commonly known that, in politics, mistakes are not forgivable. That is why the senator struggled unsuccessfully to correct his inaccurate statement. As a counter move, Obama seized the opportunity to state that McCain was fundamentally wrong. Instead of giving a break to Wall Street, as suggested by McCain, Obama proposed a tax increase to people making over $250.000 and a break to those making less.
His income tax plan appealed more for mainstream America. "Instead of handing out giveaways to corporations that don't need them and didn't ask for them, it's time we started giving a hand up to families who are trying to pay their medical bills and send their children to college"
The war was also another key issue in which the two candidates had different views. McCain, wholeheartedly defended his position that the surge was working, while the majority of the Americans were condemning the war. Obama, as opposed to McCain argued that the war was costly in term of resources and human lives. He promised, if elected, that an early withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq would be his priority.
Even though the race card was played in the campaign, it did not greatly impact the outcome of the 2008 election. It is clear, in the final analysis, that its effect was minimal. It's undeniable that the race issue made it into the race. However, it did not have enough of a vibrant influence to stop Senator Barak Obama from becoming the 44th president of the United States of America. Americans, in their majority and contrary to all evidence, decided that the economy was the driving issue, followed by the war. Obama's victory is a symbol expressing the triumph of the American dream embedded in the belief that Democracy withstands race, color and ethnicity.
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