Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Obama: An Enigma Wrapped in Mystery!

A Democrat's Dilemma: Which Way to Go?
by Charlie Leck

Before I get started, you should know that I am a blog reader
as well as a blog writer. When I find what I think is a wonderful
blog, I like to share it with others. So, it was with great pleasure
that I found just such a wonderful blog this week and I recommend
it to you. Go take a look at Freakonomics, a blog written by
Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. The two also published a book
by the same title in 2005. While we're at it, there is another new
blog from the New York Times that appears to be a good one and
one I'll visit regularly. It's called: Laughlines Blogs. My first visits to
it brought me plenty of laughs. I was able to jump right into the
day's Doonesbury carton and to the wonderful editorial cartoons by
Rudy Park, Ton Auth, Jeff Danziger, Glenn McCoy, Pat Oliphant,
Ben Sargent and Tom Toles.

Now, on to my own blog…

It was a long time ago that I wrote here that the Democratic Party had three good and strong candidates for the Presidency. My great fear, I said, was that they might start carving each other up when the going got tough. For Hillary Clinton, it got tough last week when it seemed oh so clear that she was going to lose in the New Hampshire (NH) primary election. Hilary panicked a bit. Bill Clinton panicked a lot and he went hard after Barack Obama. The former president did not sound very presidential when he described Obama candidacy as the "biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Then, of course, Obama got a little too sure of himself when all the polls indicated he would be a run-away winner in NH. It's the first time he's slipped from his composed, earnest approach. He got too certain of himself and too full of himself. With a voice filled with sarcasm he referred to Senator Clinton as "likable enough." Senator Clinton's shocking victory brought Senator Obama back down to earth.

This is exactly what we don't need. It is vital that the Democratic candidates avoid back-stabbing and name –calling.

We also didn't need John Kerry making endorsements. There will be time enough for that later. Right now, let's keep everything tidy, professional and polite.

Personally, I think the campaign has now shrunk down to just Clinton and Obama. I've been exceptionally high on John Edwards and hoped he'd make a good show of it. He hasn't been able to crack the nut, however, and voters don't seem to be convinced he's presidential timbre. Like I, one of our daughters had decided she'd back Edwards, and the two of us will probably need to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Mark Leibovich, writing in the NY Times definitely agrees that the race is down to the two.

"Barring some seismic scandal, unforeseen late entry ('Al Who?'), or unlikely surge by John Edwards, it is wholly inevitable that the race for the Democratic nomination will end next August in an epochal first…. Either Senator Barack Obama will be the first African-American or Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party. One of them will take the stage at Denver's Pepsi Center, specked with confetti and soaked in history as a culminating figure of one of the great ideological movements of the last century – civil rights or women's rights."

So, now that the choice seems to be down to two, I'm still not ready to commit myself. Trying to choose between the Senator from New York and the Senator from Illinois is not easy. I need to figure out how to make a move. To help me, I need the candidates to begin giving me more information. Even more, I need to unwrap Barack Obama and take a look at who he actually is. So far, he's keeping it very secret.

Obama is an enigma. He is playing his cards very close to his vest, not revealing his hand. Who is Barack Obama? I'm glad to read that he's a participating member of a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. It's my denomination of choice, a church struggling to understand faith from a rational, intelligent perspective, and it is very committed to ministering to people and to a world in need.

Clearly, Obama is very intelligent. He's broadly educated, extremely well read and a student of history and law. He is also an outstanding communicator. His book, The Audacity of Hope, which I reviewed here many months ago, gives us a good look at his positions on many of the crucial issues facing our nation. [My review: Obama Book is Fine, Man]

Yet, in his campaigning, he is bland and touches only lightly on the most significant issues, working carefully to avoid controversy. He has an enthusiastic following and he knows how to reach "right into his youngish fans' hearts, [magnifying] their desires to feel something big and [rocking] their worlds." [Judith Warner in the NY Times].

Shelby Steele wrote a book about the Senator, A Bound Man (Why we are excited about Obama and why he can't win.) Though Steele is a conservative, he is worth listening to – especially on Obama. Like Obama, he is the product of a white mother and a black father. He seems genuinely proud of what Obama has achieved. He argues that people don't yet know him.

"We don't yet quite know what his deep abiding convictions are. And he seems to have, you know, almost in a sense kept them concealed. And a part of the, I think, infatuation with Obama is because he's something of an invisible man. He's a kind of projection screen and you sort of see… your better side of yourself when you look at Obama than you see actually Barack Obama." [Shelby Steele in an interview with Bill Moyers]

Steele is considered a heavy weight thinker, and I'm not going to dismiss him easily. So, I want to think about it when he says that a good part of the white population of our nation thinks that Obama's election to the Presidency "would be redemptive for America – would indicate that we truly have moved away from that shameful racist past that we had."

Obama moves now to some states with significant black populations. It will be interesting to see how he does there. Steele has his doubts and his questions.

"I think that the black community in general has been very conflicted about Barack Obama precisely because he's been so successful among whites. And that makes black people nervous… the black identity, certainly black American politics are grounded in what I call challenging. It's basically, they look at white America and say we're going to presume that you're a racist until you prove otherwise. The whole concept is you keep whites on the hook. You keep the leverage. You keep the pressure. Here's a guy who's… giving whites the benefit of the doubt." [Shelby Steele in an interview with Bill Moyers]

Steel calls Obama "a bargainer." That's someone who gives Whites the benefit of the doubt – a black person who let's whites know that they won't be considered racists until they prove themselves to be. He also calls Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby "bargainers." Steele says that "one of the iron clad rules for bargainers is they can never tell you what they actually think and feel. They can never reveal their deep abiding convictions."

"He's all over television. But if you listen to his speeches – 'change,' 'hope' – I mean, it's a kind of – it's an empty mantra. I mean a surprising degree of emptiness, a lack of specificity. What change? Change from what to what? What direction do you want to take the country? What do you mean by hope? There's never any specificity because specificity is dangerous to a bargainer." [Shelby Steele in an interview with Bill Moyers]

Following the same theme, in Timothy's Eagan Blog in the NY Times, he writes that Obama now goes on to Nevada and has an opportunity to make himself better known.

"For Obama, this state offers a chance to show that he's not just the candidate of Dartmouth students and people worried about what the dollar will do to Bordeaux futures."

In Nevada, Obama will be appealing to the people of a state where the population is 24 percent Hispanic and 8 percent African-American. It strikes me as odd and startles me to think that the presidency may be decided in Las Vegas. Bob Herbert spoke of the irony in his latest opinion column.

"It just so happens that the Democratic presidential candidates are campaigning this week in the misogyny capital of America: Nevada. It's a perfect place to bring up the way women are viewed and treated in this society, but don't hold your breath. Presidential wannabes are hardly in the habit of insulting the locals."

I look forward to Obama's appeal to the voters in Nevada (January 19) and South Carolina (January 26). I think these two states – not either one of them, but the two of them together – will reveal to us whether Barak Obama is really qualified to be President of the United States. In this morning's issue of the NY Times it was reported that the consensus feeling is that the vote of black women in SC is about equally split. If it stays that way, it will probably signal a slim victory for Obama in the state. Edwards, in his own state, appears to be lagging far behind.

It's quite possible that Obama may win this national nomination to run for President without ever revealing any more about himself. That could be dangerous for the Democrats because, in a long, hard Presidential campaign, Obama will become known to all of us and it would be tragic for the party if he turns out not to be all that attractive as he is on the surface. Let's hope, in the next few weeks, we get a real, in-depth look at Barack Obama. If Obama doesn't open up in the next two weeks, and allow America to learn more about him, I'll make my decision to back Senator Clinton. That'll rock the country, won't it?

[BLOG UPDATE: 12:45 pm, 15 January 2008]
I just finished reading Charles Krauthammer's column, Are we through swooning? Good. Let's scrutinize Obama. He's a good columnist distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group. In that column, he pretty much says what I've try to say above. He closes the column with these words:

"The New Hampshire surprise has at least temporarily broken the spell. Maybe now someone will lift the curtain and subject our newest man from hope to the scrutiny that every candidate deserves."

There are two major issues facing the next President of the United States
For instance, let's hear from Obama and Clinton, in a very concrete way, about the following two issues. As the NY Times editorialized recently, there is an "unfinished debate on Iraq." The next President is going to have this mess to clean up. The recent reports that the President's surge policy is showing strong signs of success are changing the nature of the debate somewhat; however, we need to know how the next occupant of the White House will manage this war.
The NY Times outlines the significant questions that must be asked and answered about the War in Iraq and its solution:

  1. What is to become of the thousands of Iraqis who have helped the U.S. and will likely face retribution?

  2. What about future of long-term relations with Iraq?

  3. What role will Congress play in solving the problems created by the Iraq War?

  4. Will we retain military bases in Iraq and/or in the region?

  5. How will we get other nations to assist us in stabilizing Iraq?

  6. How will repair the massive damage done by this war to our international relations?

  7. Should the U.N. be involved?

The second major issue is the economy, stupid. To the administration's delight, it has replaced the war as the front-burner issue. Our economy is a mess. Our national debt is at a record high and far bigger than any of us could have imagined when Bill Clinton left office and left the nation with a huge surplus of funds. They'll try to spin it a hundred ways, but our weak and wounded economy gets put squarely on the shoulders of this Republican administration. I don't think tax cuts for the rich has worked one little bit.

[Added on 19 January 2008] I just found a blogging heads video on the NY Times in which two distinguished black academics talking about How Black Barack Obama may or may not be. It is very worth watching and raises my opinion of some of Obama's talents.]


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