Senator Barak Obama entered the 2008 presidential campaign with a full ledger, and the entries on either side more or less balanced out.
His liabilities were daunting: a black man with a Muslim heritage, young and with limited experience as a federal legislator. He opposed far more seasoned pretenders, including Hillary Clinton, his fellow senator and presumed heir apparent to the dynasty begun by her husband and rudely slashed by the Bush interregnum.
His assets were equally formidable. Not since John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run have voters beheld so universally attractive a candidate: He was articulate in a society where oratory had become a rare artifact. He was at once cool, cunning, and fiercely intelligent, as elegant a public speaker as Ronald Reagan and as seductive a stage presence as Bill Clinton, minus the gluttony. Clearly a shrewd judge of character, he surrounded himself with men and women whose reserves of competence and discipline were at parity with his own.
Then there were the extraordinary items, which thankfully for Mr. Obama broke almost exclusively his way. He would campaign amid the rubble of an incumbent presidency that began sabotaging itself almost immediately after its re-election in 2004 with a disastrous plan to privatize Social Security. This was followed by Hurricane Katrina, the sectarian holocaust in Iraq, the indictment of a top White House aid for compromising a CIA operative, revelations of warrantless wiretapping, the politicalization of the country’s once-sacred Justice Department, and finally and decisively, the collapse of Wall Street and the onset of economic recession. When measured against the tragic-comic demise of the Bush presidency, Mr. Obama’s liabilities seem to deflate significantly.
That being the case, was the young Senator’s victory truly the historic, transcendent event it is held to be? Were Americans really converted by Mr. Obama’s accomplishments and his humanist appeals to tolerance and civility? Or did they simply rebel against eight years of Republican misrule, which clung to Republican challenger John McCain like the smell of death?
Certainly Mr. Obama’s election is historic and should be celebrated as such. His campaign was a testament to the power of restraint and reason at a time when citizens – in America and around the world – were weary of the arrogance, fear-mongering and labored hyperbole of the incumbent regime. Many voters, no doubt, saw in Mr. Obama deliverance from Mr. Bush who did more to undermine American interests at home and abroad than any foreign power or terrorist cell. In the aftermath of last week’s conclusive Democratic victory, America’s two-party political system is now in peril; thanks to Mr. Bush and his ghostly commissar, Vice President Dick Cheney, to say nothing of the creepy Sarah Palin and her anti-intellectual claque, the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln, the world’s oldest political movement – has been reduced to a gated community of aging, southern white people.
Voters were also impressed by the brilliance of the Obama campaign, which melded the internet with grass-roots intimacy to decisive effect. As the current administration consumed itself with its own incompetence, and as the field of candidates vying to replace it were felled by one gaffe after another, the flawlessness of the Obama bid became irresistible. As Mr. McCain graciously conceded on election night, his rival ran the superior race, and the voters decided appropriately. Presidential historians will no doubt study the Obama campaign the way military men dissect Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. (An imperfect analogy, actually, as Mr. McCain was no Bonaparte.)
And yet, in Mr. Obama’s triumph for the forces of light there was disturbingly dark subtext. Attempts by Mr. Obama’s enemies to identify him as a Muslim, though not so compelling as to derail his quest, were serious enough to keep him on the defensive. He was careful not to be photographed with Muslims anywhere, let alone in a mosque. His loyalty oath to Israel before the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee was as convincing a parody of a Beltway pol as was Tina Fey’s sendup of Sarah Palin, only without the laughs. During his tour of the Middle East, he kibbutzed heartily with Israelis but allocated a desultory 45 minutes with Palestinians. While touring the West Bank, he did not stand for photo opportunities nor did he give a press conference, pointedly shunning the very people who represent one half of a negotiated peace in that benighted region.
On the Republican side, a woman at a McCain rally told the candidate she could never vote for Mr. Obama because “he’s an Arab.” Mr. McCain’s response was an authentic, if unintentional measure of American Islamophobia.
“No,” Mr. McCain said. “He’s a decent family man.”
The editorial pages of America’s liberal heralds – the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek – largely ignored Mr. McCain’s reply as well as Mr. Obama’s tactical snubbing of the country’s Muslim community. It took Colin Powell, America’s first black Secretary of State and apparently its sole statesman, to acknowledge the appalling bigotry of it all. His comments on CBS Television’s Meet the Press is worth quoting at length:
"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the [Republican] party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as 'Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well the correct answer is 'He is not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian.' But the really right answer is 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer is 'No. That's not America.' Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”
In politics there are always red lines. Mr. Obama can be forgiven for appeasing a largely anti-Muslim electorate while pandering to its Likudnik proxies, assuming he would sup with the devil today in exchange for a lasting and just Middle East peace tomorrow. But it says something about the character of a society where any serious attempt to relieve a long-suffering people would need to come calling the same way Mr. Obama’s forbearers did – through the back door.
The outcome of America’s 2008 presidential campaign was a welcome salve against two centuries of violent discrimination against black Americans. Yet however redemptive, it also sanctioned a new reality in the politics of ethnicity and religion: American Muslims, particularly Arab ones, are the new darkies.