Barack Obama in the Public Imagination

Barack Obama in the Public Imagination

BY the time this article sees print, our eyes will have blurred from reading that Barack Obama, the first African American to win the presidential nomination of a major party, has accomplished a feat that many Americans would not have believed possible in their lifetime. Whether he wins or not, the campaign for the office of the presidency is symbolic in itself, and the issue of race heightened the Obama campaign’s emotional and symbolic resonance. Obama simultaneously cast himself as black and postracial—or, better, as a black candidate looking toward a postracial future. He frequently cites his biracial heritage, moving audiences to tears with stories of his Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas. His “change” message emphasizes the dream that America can transcend race and calls for a shift (partially generational) away from the old mind-set of divisiveness (black/white, red state/blue state) and toward a new consensus that will unite (to quote from Obama’s South Carolina victory speech) “the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time. They are young and old; rich and poor. They are black and white; Latino and Asian. They are Democrats from Des Moines and Independents from Concord; Republicans from rural Nevada and young people across this country who’ve never had a reason to participate until now.”

Certainly Obama has thus far “transcended” race by attracting large numbers of white voters and possibly overcoming the Bradley effect—the statistically shown reluctance of whites to vote for black candidates. (Though the Obama campaign did experience consistent problems attracting white working-class men, Bill Clinton and John Kerry had the same problems.) Race played a role in the forging of his consensus message; it has played a role in the reporting on his campaign, particularly during the Jeremiah Wright contretemps. Whether or not one chooses to see the campaign as a yardstick to measure the progress of race relations in America, the issue of race is woven into the candidate’s message—and it will play a significant role in this (admittedly) opinionated overview of Obama’s primary campaign.

The Blackness Debates
It’s difficult to believe now, but not long ago it was less than certain that Barack Obama would dominate the black vote. A news article from March 2007 announced, “Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said Thursday he’s backing Democrat Barack Obama in his presidential bid, giving his support to a new generation of black politicians. ‘He has my vote,’ the Rev. Jackson said.” The article went on—like many others—to ask whether Jackson’s endorsement would help Obama win black voters. Today, reading the dated texts, we chuckle. But 2007 polls of black voters still showed Obama’s popularity standing roughly equal to Hillary Clinton’s. Vanguard black elder statesmen and former civil rights movement leaders like Andrew Young and Joh...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels