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Dreaming of Obama

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Earlier this year, McCain himself sent Obama a scathing note, accusing him of being far too partisan on the subject of Senate ethics reform, a matter they’d jointly undertaken. “I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman senator,” his note said, “and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness.”

And yet there’s still something in Obama that’s slightly reminiscent of McCain. Both speak bluntly about what they believe, and seem all the more trustworthy for it. Both are ethics-reform nuts, showing they’re not especially attached to how the Senate does business. And the identities of both men were forged outside the Senate rather than inside, meaning politics isn’t the be-all and end-all of their lives. Aren’t these the kinds of politicians the electorate craves?

“If Barack disagrees with you or thinks you haven’t done something appropriate,” says Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, “he’s the kind of guy who’ll talk to you about it. He’ll come up and reconcile: ‘I don’t think you were truthful about my bill.’ I’ve seen him do that. On the Senate floor.”

Obama’s friendship with Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, may be the best evidence of Obama’s native ecumenism. The two met at freshman orientation, and their wives hit it off; now they have dinners together and are co-sponsoring bills, including one that creates a public database of government spending. (It sailed through both House and Senate two weeks ago.)

“What Washington does,” Coburn says, “is cause everybody to concentrate on where they disagree as opposed to where they agree. But leadership changes that. And Barack’s got the capability, I believe—and the pizzazz and the charisma—to be a leader of America, not a leader of Democrats.”

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was calling Obama a uniter, not a divider.

People often like to ask whether the country is ready for a black president. “The test is not a Barack test,” says Jesse Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. “It’s America’s test. Phenomenal blacks are wonderful, but they ain’t new. Do you know how qualified Paul Robeson was? All-American, Phi Beta Kappa, Othello?”

Al Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004, still doesn’t see how race can’t ultimately insinuate itself into the core of a black person’s political identity. “As long as Barack Obama’s talking hope, as long as he’s talking the dream … as long as he’s not an Al Sharpton, he’s fine,” the Reverend says. “But in a race situation, when Katrina happens, or affirmative action comes up, he’s going to be asked by the media to talk about that. That’s what he’s got to be careful about.”

Back when he ran for Congress in 2000, hoping to unseat the former Black Panther Bobby Rush, Obama ran up against some hard-core identity politics and activism, when Rush implied Obama wasn’t “black enough.” Today, in Congress, Obama is acutely aware of the debt he owes to black activists of a previous generation, including men like Rush. Yet there are plenty of activists in Obama’s own generation who still consider Obama’s election an anomaly—or, at the very least, something less than “a point of transition,” as Artur Davis says. “Forty years ago, after the election of Ed Brooke”—the first African-American sent to the Senate since Reconstruction—“people said we didn’t need the protest movement anymore,” says Sharpton. “And then there wasn’t another black senator for 26 years. Every generation has this debate. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois had it 110 years ago.”

Obama has thought about being president. He’s never been coy about that. I bring up Henry Louis Gates’s essay about Colin Powell again. In it, Gates drew a very sharp distinction: Jesse Jackson wanted to be the first black president. Powell, were he ever to run, wanted to be the first president who happened to be black.

“I don’t think that those two are necessarily opposing,” says Obama. “I don’t want people to pretend I’m not black or that it’s somehow not relevant. But ultimately,” he says, “I’d want to be a really great president, you know? And then I’d worry about all the other stuff. Because there are a lot of mediocre or poor presidents.”

It’s a view, once again, that quietly reconciles—not unlike how Kennedy viewed his Catholicism. Kennedy wasn’t a Catholic president or a president who happened to be Catholic; he was neither, and both. Obama, similarly, invokes the possibility that racial politics isn’t a zero-sum game, where someone must choose between activism or self-imposed color blindness. He invokes the possibility that black Americans in public life might not have to live with what Gates calls “the burden of representation”—the ludicrous, impossible notion that they must represent their race every time they vote, or act, or speak.


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