Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 11, 2008

Obama: “I’ll be A ‘ight”

Oh God, I so desperately hope this guy’s the real deal, not just a good rhetorical button-pusher. If his analysis and action are as good as his cliche-free verbal kung fu, then what we have here is someone who doesn’t just campaign well, but also can govern well.

It’s clear so far from this primary season that many of us on both sides of the aisle need someone to believe in again. We need to believe in the goodness of our nation again, and that’s just the kind of vein that Barack Obama has tapped into. Not just “change”, but also a sort of return to our roots (no pun intended… sorry, Alex Haley). Obama’s like the great orators of the past: Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Lincoln and –yes, it must be said — JFK, who really could change hearts and minds, and then change even the social landscape itself, with the power of words.

Not that the back room deals and shortsighted ideologies we’ve come to expect will go away quietly. I’m sure that Obama, a pragmatist at heart, will make a few key alliances and peddle a little pork now and then to get the job done. But he’ll stick to his guns on what matters most, and fight a clean fight. And when it’s time to govern, I’d lay odds he’ll be eager to let some elder statesmen (and women) weigh in on matters where he may not have as much expertise and experience.

When asked recently by a reporter if he feels prepared for the low blows and bloody noses of the race ahead, Obama smiled slightly and said, “I come from Chicago politics. I’ll be a’-ight.” When I heard that, I knew he was ready. Since the fall, he has proved he’s “black enough” by using Ebonics and straight talk to show his street cred, not to mention getting the Tavis Smileys and Oprah Winfreys of the world on his side. Not that he’s “slumming”… he doesn’t dumb it down, but he is able to put things in understandable terms, maybe because he got used to working with “the little people” when he was a state senator. He plays to Christians pretty well, certainly a lot better than any of the other Democrats. He’s obviously got the 18-25 vote, if the little punks will just put down the beer bong, get their asses out of their grubby little dorm rooms and vote for a change. He gets a lot of independents, even a few with Republican leanings, perhaps because he’s cut from that religiously woven cloth. 

It’s a little tricky figuring out how he’s going to become president without carrying any southern states, but heck, I think even Al Gore barely carried his own southern state, and he won that darn election anyway. (I still think the shame of 2000 is that we didn’t reform the whole electoral college thing… it just smacks of elitism and insiders and potential for corruption.) Then again, if the black community in the South has a belief that their vote will actually, finally, mean something, they may come out in record numbers and get him a surprise state or two. Yes, ma’am. I’m thinking the tide is turning.

Meanwhile, Mrs. “I don’t feel no ways tired” Clinton apparently did get tired last weekend. (Remember that pandering little moment, speaking at a black church last year… quoting an old Negro spiritual in a stumbling imitation of Ebonics?)  She showed some weakness– a wavering voice and a more heartfelt approach to expressing herself — and her weakness apparently became her strength among those who voted in New Hampshire.

Not that I mind her terribly. I think the tears were genuine. I think her own votes and policies (apart from the Iraq vote) are in line with her constituents and mostly fall out along centrist Democratic lines. My mom said her book was very good, and I don’t doubt she’s pretty balanced in her knowledge of both foreign and domestic issues.

But my problem is this: Hillary’s proud and ambitious in a way that I’m not sure Americans will be able to respond to. Or if we do, then we probably shouldn’t be swayed by such cockiness. (Look what it got us the last eight years, after all.) She’s acted all along like she deserves the nomination, like she has a right to it. She’s certainly not as stuffy and upper-class as Kerry, but as a lifelong Chicagoan, I’m here to tell you that the suburb she grew up in here wasn’t exactly where the plumbers and working moms and underdogs lived, either. And we all know how America loves an underdog. But despite being a woman, Clinton’s no underdog: instead, she’s a high-strung purebred, maybe a Weimaraner or a Pomeranian. (And no, I am NOT going to use the B word… I think it’s untrue and unfair in this case.)

Obama, on the other hand, is like a greyhound… he just runs, and runs, and runs. He plays well with others, of various races and classes, and from various nations. He’s careful and specific when he talks policy, he refuses to be rattled in the debates or by reporters, and he’s tough — yet without seeming testy, aggressive or mean-spirited. And mostly he breaks the mold in how he votes, as well — lest we get caught up in all that hogwash about character and “strong leadership” and lose sight of the basic element at the heart of politics: policy.

I haven’t done a lot of homework about his voting record or full platform, even though he’s MY senator. But mostly what I’ve picked up over the years by osmosis is that he listens well, he co-sponsored some bills that make a lot of sense, and he’s got a love-hate relationship with “machine” politics. (He is, after all, from Chicago.) For instance, he was the keynote speaker and everyone’s favorite up-and-comer at the Democratic National Convention in ’04, but I’ll bet nine out of ten of those same Democratic leaders wanted him to wait awhile before grabbing for the brass ring. Yet Obama didn’t snub them and run because of ambition, but out of a sense of urgency that we can’t wait four years to get out of the mess we’ve made. He also shows a conviction that the world around us is changing faster than the old-school politicians and their methods can keep up with. That 2004 Obama speech in support of Kerry’s nomination, plus Kerry’s awareness that even a John Edwards does not represent a big enough separation from the failed Democratic past, are the reasons old-schooler Kerry threw his support to Obama this week.

My wife and my mother, in fact most of the women in my life, think that a ticket with both Obama and Clinton on it would be unbeatable, if either of them is willing to play second fiddle. And while Obama may in fact be willing to do so if it comes to that, I think the wider general opinion is that Clinton would not accept a V.P. nod, and would not offer the job to Obama if she’s nominated. Personally, I’m not sure I agree that these are correct assumptions anyway. For one thing, such a radical departure — the black man/white woman ticket, neither with a ton of real, relevant experience — might scare away as many voters as it would attract.

When I try to think of a good “backup”, I’m just as inclined to think that the more experienced, tough-minded, practical and electable Joe Biden would make a good VP. He’d be the Democratic heavy club that a president could swing, the way Cheney’s been for Bush (or is it the other way around? … either way, they’re both dull, blunt tools…) Even the recently-dropped-out Bill Richardson, as a former governor and Cabinet member, would cover more “bases” than a Clinton/Obama ticket.

And finally, let’s face it… 2012 really will be too late. It’s the year the Mayan calendar ends, the year when some folks believe the Beginning of the End begins (if it hasn’t already). Whatever. Whether we’ve got four years or four thousand to go, Obama is certainly the Man of the Moment. But maybe the real question is this: is he a man for the ages, the redemptive corner that America has to turn, the window of opportunity that may not open again for another generation, or another century?


  1. […] be a’ ight,” as Barack humorously said at one point during the campaign ( I blogged about his use of Ebonics, and the wisdom of a Joe Biden pick for VP, over a year ago. As my man Stephen Colbert likes to […]

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