our years ago, we published a cover story on Barack Obama ("The Great Black Hope," November 2004). He had recently given his tour de force speech at the Democratic convention, and was about to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Already there was buzz about Obama possibly running for president. And already the question that hovered over him—and would continue to for the next four years—was whether American voters were "ready" for an African American president.
The answer, we argued, was an emphatic yes. The author of the piece, Ben Wallace-Wells, acknowledged that race remained a huge, often insuperable barrier for most aspiring black politicians. But, he argued, there are a few African American leaders whom "white Americans can actually picture being president" and whom they would vote for in part to demonstrate that the country has indeed moved beyond race. These black leaders—he mentioned Obama, along with Colin Powell, Doug Wilder, Cory Booker, and Harold Ford Jr.—have two characteristics in common:
[A]ll give off the sense that they have transcended traditional racial categories, by signaling in their speech and demeanor, their personal narratives and career achievements, that they fully share in the culture and values of mainstream America; they are able to transcend race through the simple fact of their class. Just as importantly, they also transcend ideology by declaring with their rhetoric and policy positions a self-conscious independence from the conventional politics of their parties.
Both kinds of transcendence—political as well as racial—were required for an African American to reach the White House. As Wallace-Wells noted, there have been other black elected officials who, through their accomplishments and deportment, garnered enough white votes to win high office and national attention—think former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun or former Oklahoma representative J. C. Watts. But these individuals never generated much expectation that they could run for president and win, for they were conventional partisans who appealed only to whites in their own party. That Obama had to rise above both race and ideology in order to win the presidency is a testament to the extraordinarily high bar we set for blacks—a bar that whites, however unfairly, don’t have to clear. It is also further evidence of Obama’s astounding political skills.
But now that he’s the president elect, the question arises: Was Obama’s campaign of post-partisanship a genuine message or simply a sell job? Few question the genuineness of Obama’s beyond-race views, but plenty still doubt the sincerity and wisdom of his beyond-ideology views. Many on the right fear that Obama was being untruthful: that the talk of unity across party lines was merely a disguise for hidden socialist aims. Many on the left, ironically, dread the opposite: that Obama was being truthful! They worry that in his quest for political compromise, Obama will abandon his progressive principles, load his administration with centrists, ratchet down his agenda, and blow a once-in-a-generation chance to move the country in a firmly progressive direction.
While I don’t share the right’s fears, I can understand the left’s. Bipartisanship presumes a GOP minority (or at least a sizable majority of that minority) interested in compromise, and we have no idea if such a minority exists in Congress anymore, especially since many of the last remaining Republican moderates lost their seats in November. And there’s a good case to be made that Obama should try to jam through as much progressive change as he possibly can quickly, while his leverage is strongest. It is at moments of crisis that a president can make his boldest moves, yet Obama seems, politically and policy-wise, quite cautious.
But at the same time, this caution is part of what many people, me included, most like about Obama: his deliberateness, his empiricism, and his suspicion of easy answers. The last thing we need, after eight years of George W. Bush, is another president drawn to "game-changing" policy schemes that promise the moon and appeal ideologically but don’t work in the real world. What we need instead is the opposite: a leader who understands and can articulate the complex nature of the problems we face and is committed to finding solutions that work, even when they fall outside the political comfort zones of his supporters. This is the spirit that animates the Washington Monthly, and I hope it will animate the Obama White House as well.
To be honest, we didn’t see much of this from Obama during the general election, for reasons that are understandable. But my sense is that it is the president elect’s default mode of thinking. Consider this scene that Wallace-Wells witnessed at an Obama event at a black church in downtown Chicago four years ago:
Before his audience, Obama told a fortyish man worrying about taxes that government will have to do more to help the middle class, not less, and that limiting taxes shouldn’t be his narrow political priority. He told a white-haired woman peace activist who criticizes Israel that the Palestinians are in the wrong, and then when this appears to encourage a pro-Israel man, tells that guy that the Israelis are far from perfect, too. Obama was measured throughout; he tends to come off as an expert and wonk, an earnest, hopeful policy nerd. A group of older black women asked, humbly, for vague assurances that he would redirect federal housing policy to emphasize low-rise, rather than high-rise, projects—most housing advocates think low-rise buildings would be easier to police and maintain, and encourage more neighborly interactions. The grandmas were throwing him a softball, hoping only for a signal that he was open to their concerns, that he would side with the experts. Obama was having none of it. "Low-rise isn’t going to solve all your problems," Obama said sternly. "I’ve worked in the projects, and, let me tell you, low-rise has problems of its own." The particular lady who had asked the question looked rebuked, and there was a surprised wince in the church: Did he really just say that to a bunch of trapped-in-the-projects grandmas?
Yes, he did say that. And it’s good sign that he did. Let’s just hope he can summon the same level of candor as president.
And oh, and by the way, I’ll bet the grandmas still voted for him.