September 26, 2006

Message to the People: What’s wrong with Barack Obama?

What’s wrong with Barack Obama? One of my noon basketball buddies at work joked, “His name sounds too much like Osama.” Outside of that, he certainly seems flawless. To be sure, Obama (who recently visited Louisville to stump for local Democrats) is nothing short of the greatest political phenomenon this decade. He is tall, good looking, of exotic racial heritage (his father Kenyan, mother white American), clearly intelligent, masterful with words and charismatic. Obama is only the fifth black U.S. senator in the history of the country — only the third since Reconstruction. The man has even won a Grammy for the spoken-word version of his autobiography.Obama is easily the dumbed-down, spineless Democrats’ hottest commodity. I mean, let’s be serious. As bad as the Republicans have mucked things up in the country (and the world), you would think neither the midterm nor 2008 elections should be in doubt. The Democrats, however, are so woeful that they can’t “win” anything — the Republicans have to “lose.” And they very well may — at least a few races.Because of the emptied-out talent level of his party, Obama is receiving pressure from many quarters to run for president in 2008. Who woulda thunk it? At this rate, we’ll soon be at the point where politicos actually hang the “electable” tag on a black man when speaking of the presidency! While Obama and those close to him continue to deny any interest in throwing his hat into the ring, his actions sometimes betray his comments. Or do they?Earlier this month, he was the special guest of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) at Harkin’s annual steak fry at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Indianola, Iowa. Harkin has hosted the event for the past 29 years, and it has become a regular stop for presidential hopefuls. Of course, Obama explained his presence away by saying he was only there to help fellow Democrats in the midterm elections, not pursue his own political ambitions. So smooth.People across lines of race and political party love him. In the 2004 Illinois race, he won a stunning 40 percent of the state’s Republican vote. All things considered, if I lived in Illinois, even I would vote for Barack Obama.So what’s my issue, you ask? My point is, in the political reality in which we live and languish, nothing is wrong with Obama. But, from a progressive’s point of view, nothing is terribly right with him either. To be sure, he is all the things I mentioned above and more. But I fear that the greatest source of his appeal is that he is painfully “safe.” He presents no real threat to the status quo.The first red flag for me was raised a few days after I heard of Obama during the 2004 Democratic National Convention and before his now classic speech. Asked by an NPR reporter about the Democrats’ concern that all speakers toe the party line (which I guess would be OK if their party line had an ounce of substance), Obama replied, “I certainly have no problem staying on message.” To most, this comment would seem harmless. Problem is, those who have really impacted the world — the true visionaries — have frequently stayed “OFF MESSAGE!”This is the crux of it, gentle readers. I think a couple of problems with Obama bear consideration. And I believe he shares them with another Democrat celebrity — Hillary Clinton. For all his faults, I sincerely believe Bill Clinton actually believed in something. His wife, however, is a pure political animal and believes in only power. She will say whatever and do whatever to get and maintain it. Play the game, stay “on message.”The last problem is both America’s and Obama’s. In our current political haze, we have forgotten that there is not only a gap between political reality and political imagination, but a yawning chasm. Jeffrey H. Reiman articulates it better than I ever could in the book “In Defense of Political Philosophy”: “The politics of a nation is one thing; its political imagination is quite another. Politics amounts to the day-to-day decisions and actions of politicians and their audiences. But political imagination refers to that sense of connection between the real and the ideal, and the boundary between the possible and the utopian, which is felt before it is reasoned out.”In our current Novocain Nation, Obama is clearly great at slotting himself into existing political reality. It seems, however, that he has sacrificed his political imagination to do so. Outside of that, absolutely, positively nothing is wrong with Barack Obama.Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools. Dr. Ricky L. Jones is associate professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at U of L. His LEO column appears in the last issue of each month. Contact him at blackvanguard@hotmail.com