Commentary Magazine


Obama the Healer?

First, a confession: I really like Barack Obama. I like his look, his poise, his ready intelligence. His voice is a marvelous instrument, and he is unusually articulate (especially for a . . . politician). Watching him announce his candidacy on Saturday, I found myself cheering along, pleased that a black man with an exotic name was standing where Lincoln stood and eloquently invoking his example. And I’ve been impressed by the patriotic breadth of his rhetoric. As Kay Hymowitz recently observed, Obama is one of a new group of black leaders “touting old-fashioned American self-reliance and ingenuity, with nary a hint of racial resentment.” His chief selling point, he told “60 Minutes” last night, is that he can “pull together the different strands of American life and focus on what we have in common.”

The question, of course, is what sort of substance this rhetoric will serve. Obama may radiate moderation, but his positions, to the extent that he has set them out, are well to the Left, even in the Democratic party. This is most obvious with respect to his proposal on Iraq, the irresponsibility of which is visible from as far away as Australia. But there is also reason to wonder about his views on the key divisions in American society—the ones that he promises to heal.

Though Obama speaks openly about the importance of his own faith and regrets the liberal tendency to chase religious believers from the public square, his views are utterly predictable on all the hot-button issues of the culture war, from abortion and gay rights to stem-cell research. Moreover, his own religiosity is hardly mainstream. The church on Chicago’s South Side to which he has long belonged—and where he had his conversion experience—is Afrocentric, with overtones of black separatism. Its principles include a “disavowal of the pursuit of ‘middleclassness’” (along with, it should be said, a commitment to the black family and work ethic).

As for divisions of class, it is useful to remember that Obama got his start as a “community organizer” in these same neighborhoods, and he brings along that baggage. His announcement speech included a quick endorsement of the “living wage,” a kind of minimum-wage-on-steroids beloved of groups like ACORN but disastrous for urban economies. And he pledged to “allow our unions and their organizers to lift up this country’s middle-class again.” This is not, to say the least, Robert Rubin’s corner of the Democratic party.

Finally, on race, Obama is careful to a fault, but at some point he will have to spell out where he stands on affirmative action, welfare reform, crime, family disintegration, and a host of other issues. His rhetoric as a Senator has not always been so conciliatory or free of racial rancor. In remarks about issuing a national apology to the victims of lynching and their descendants, he spoke about “completing the unfinished work of the civil-rights movement, and closing the gap that still exists in health care, education, and income. There are more ways to perpetrate violence,” he went on, in words reminiscent of Reverends Jackson and Sharpton, “than simply a lynching.”

Last night’s interview on “60 Minutes” was most interesting for two unscripted moments. Asked by the reporter whether he is troubled by questions about his blackness, Obama replied that “nobody’s confused about that” when “I’m catching a cab.” When his wife was asked about concerns for his safety on the campaign trail, she answered that “as a black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station.” This prompted the candidate to look down, in obvious discomfort, as if to say, “Not part of the narrative, honey.”

Obama’s success has come in part from his ability to combine the appealing rhetoric of the Democratic Leadership Council with the policy priorities of his party’s left-wing zanies. How long can the balancing act last?