Now that Obama has locked up the nomination, its fitting to reflect on the abiding irony of his candidacy: That the unity candidate now stands as the front-man of a party bitterly divided.
At the moment of his national political birth on that stage in Boston in 2004, Barack Obama painted a Rockwellian portrait of a country capable of transcendent togetherness (“We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America”).
But Obama nonetheless secured the nomination only after gutting out the Democrats’ most polarizing nominating process in a generation. This presents not only an inconvenient contradiction — but a dramatic test of Obama’s leadership.
Obama can’t afford to let this cognitive dissonance linger. The premise upon which his platform of change is built is that American politics is beset by false division — “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” And yet these divisions seemed all too real in the race to the Democratic nomination during which demography became destiny — with blacks, college educated whites, and the young congregating in Camp Obama and boomer women, seniors, Latinos and the hill-people of Appalachia coalescing in Hillaryland.
Of course, Hillary “Hard Working White American” Clinton was hardly above exploiting these divisions — even when her dead-end campaign became an exercise in reckless vanity.
“Hillary’s attacks on him have not been ‘His health care plan sucks,'” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the progressive think-tank NDN and a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who stayed neutral in this race. “Her argument was ‘He can’t win white votes.’ It speaks to his race, to American racism, and to the latent discomfort with the growing multiculturalism of the United States. That’s not a simple thing to explain away.”
The good news for Obama is that, even with these raw divisions, his coalition appears big enough to win. The majority of Clinton-backing Democrats (see: Hilary Rosen) will make their way to Obama — regardless of the strength and sincerity of Hillary Clinton’s endorsement.
“He can still win this election without her,” says Rosenberg. “The polls have made that abundantly clear. It would hurt Barack if she didn’t jump on board, but he does not need Hillary to win this election. And this idea that he does is just pure fantasy of a dying campaign.”
Where Clinton and her diehard supporters become important, however, is not simply in winning but in building the kind of run-away majority that will, in turn, give Obama the mandate for the Change he’s selling on the stump.
The 2008 race wants to go big for the Democrat. The underlying dynamics are unbelievably harsh for the GOP. But without unifying the expanded, energized, and divided Democratic base behind him, this election could easily yield a 1-2 point nailbiter for Obama, translating into more gridlock in Washington, or, yes, even a President John McCain.
Obama must now make peace with the perhaps 20 percent of Clinton’s 18 million voters who would, right now, like to make good on Geraldine Ferraro’s threat and vote for McCain. And yet he must do this without being seen to bend to Hillary’s will. “He can’t in any way look weak or accommodating to the loser,” says Rosenberg. “This isn’t a power-sharing arrangement. His job is to build himself up as a presidential candidate: He’s the paramount leader of the party; he is the chief.”
Healing his Democratic party — from New York to Kentucky — has become the paramount test of Barack Obama’s leadership, and the sniff test for his soaring rhetoric from 2004:
Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga.
A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
The fact that he’s opening his general election campaign tomorrow in Bristol, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia — within reach of the media markets of Greenville, South Carolina, Charlotte and Winston Salem North Carolina, Lexington, Kentucky, Roanoke Virginia, Charleston West Virginia, and Knoxville Tennessee — is a very encouraging sign.