On Tuesday night in Boston, the United States was hit by a weapon of mass enlightenment. The name of the weapon is Barack Obama. He’s not even a US senator – yet: but he will almost certainly be one in November. Not a uniter, not a divider: the ultimate transcender. Some day, some say, he may become the first black president of the United States.
Democrats in Illinois – where he is a widely admired state legislator – already know a lot about “the skinny guy with the funny name”, in his own words, as he is a state legislator. The best in the blogosphere, such as The Daily Kos website, have been praising him for months. As the keynote speaker on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, he was to be introduced in prime time to the national stage. But transcending already high expectations, he did not just deliver a speech praising presidential candidate John Kerry. He made history, his oratorical mastery drawing instant comparisons with Dr Martin Luther King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
Most Americans didn’t see it. In a graphic display of their concern for the public good, US television networks – ABC, NBC, CBS – did not broadcast the 15-minute speech, opting for deep slumber in sitcom hell. On Fox, it was as though the speech never happened. It was up to those Americans who saw it on cable – and felt chills down their spine and were moved to tears – to spread the word frantically by phone, e-mail or text messaging. Rapture soon took over the blogosphere, instant Obamania leading to all manners of Democratic ticket configurations after Kerry/Edwards 2004: Edwards/Obama in 2012; Clinton(Chelsea)/Obama in 2016 (or vice-versa); Obama for president in 2016 or 2020 (if he has not had a bullet in the head by then).
Obama’s speech, delivered with an almost immaculate balance of passion and restraint, was a masterpiece of all-inclusiveness. He characterized the United States as “a magical place”, with its people’s “insistence on small miracles”, a place where everyone should be “my brother’s keeper” and “my sister’s keeper”, where “the politics of hope” triumphs over “the politics of cynicism” (the “politics of hope” is vice presidential candidate John Edwards’ key theme). As a transcender, he was careful not to insert the slightest hint of criticism of racism and imperialism. Obama also did his best to bridge the false gap between Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) states, insisting on common values. All of this with splendid touches, such as “Blue States Worship an Awesome God”: this is the name of a favorite Christian pop song of the Bush-voting evangelical right.
He started very low key, unfolding his extraordinary family story – father from Kenya, mother from Kansas, the meeting of immigrant and Middle America – to include it in the master theme of union and hope, in a delicate but relentless crescendo. He evoked “the audacity of hope”. The tone and the deliverance were resolute and at the same time extremely uplifting – almost like a pop-song version of a psalm. No wonder the end of the speech swiftly connected to a pop version of a psalm, the ultra-cool “Keep on Pushing” by the legendary Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (“Maybe someday/ I’ll reach that higher goal/ I know I can make it/ with just a little bit of soul”).
Obama’s mix of Clintonian third way, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King all rolled into an all-inclusive package cannot but be radioactive material. In Obama, the Democratic Party may finally have found its own bridge to a multi-ethnic, socially just 21st-century America. The Kerry campaign would just need to release Obama on the campaign trail to have both the black votes and the white suburban votes pouring in.
Edwards, in his acceptance speech on Wednesday night, once again developed his trademark campaign trail theme of “the two Americas” – the corporate and the working family’s. Obama praised “one America”. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean was the trailblazer (articulating what he defined as the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party”). Obama, one step ahead, is the unifier. Significantly, someone who worked with both candidates wrote on the Daily Kos weblog: “Obama is Howard Dean at the next level up. That is, Obama articulates the same positions and pragmatisms of Dean … only better. More eloquently, more convincingly and with an ability to avoid the divisiveness that Dean generated … But they are different … In some ways, Barack Obama was the beneficiary of the energy Dean created in Illinois. I can tell you that many of the people I worked with in Illinois (and Iowa) for Dean transitioned their energies to working for Obama.”
One of the key questions now is how US mainstream media will spin the new political superstar. Pundits were caught deer-facing-the-headlights style, as Obama sharply enhanced their “slicing and dicing” of the US. Some cable talking-heads, such as CNN’s Aaron Brown, at least acknowledged they had witnessed The Real Deal. Right-wingers were, and still are, well, speechless, and left with the only spinnable option: co-option. For them, Obama’s speech was more “conservative” than Democrat.
Obama’s inclusiveness completely paralyzed the neo-conservatives. He is unimpeachable as he strives to abolish any ideological discourse. And if his speech is described as having nothing to do with Democratic ideals, this only reveals neo-con paranoia. What happened is Obama got some measure of praise, and the neo-cons immediately changed the subject.
Obama’s instant classic of a speech is destined to be sampled to oblivion. Seasoned Republicans won’t fool themselves. They know that with a few more years of practice, a little older (he’s only 42) and the gravitas acquired in a senatorial post, Obama will be able to unleash major shock and awe over the dividers, the extreme right-wing camp.
Republicans relentlessly play the race card to scare white Southern men in the US – who keep voting Republican against their best economic interests. Obama shattered this racist fallacy. And once again reflecting how race – as well as class – is indeed a taboo theme in US society, even instant converts to Obamania seemed to be relieved that he does not speak with the intonation, the rhythm and the phrasing of black American preachers. This implies that as his race is not obvious from the perspective of his speech pattern, there’s no limit for his achievements as a politician. Barring the hate bullet that stopped John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King, Barack (“Blessed”) Obama will live maybe one day to confront his blessed destiny: to become America’s first black president.