Thursday, August 7, 2008

Obama and "The Guys on the Bills"

I was born at 9:00 a.m., local Eastern Standard Time, at a hospital in New Jersey.

But I wasn't born a 9:00 a.m., local Eastern Standard Time, at a hospital in New Jersey yesterday.

So when Sen. Obama says that some people are hesitant to support or vote for him because he "doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills," I know exactly what he's saying. Whether you think it's fair or unfair for him to say it, to try to pretend that race doesn't factor in to the 2008 Presidential election is to deny the presence of a 2000-pound elephant in the room. It's an exercise in naivete that borders on stupidity.

So let's start by agreeing that it matters.

Where reasonable people can start to disagree, however, is on how it matters. Of course, there are people in this country who -- consciously or sub-consciously -- won't vote for Obama solely because he doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills. However, there are also people in this country who will support or vote for him in large part because he doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills.

It frustrates me tremendously every time I hear someone say that "they" won't let Barack Obama win the American Presidency. Of course, the "they" being referred to is an unnamed and unidentified but conspiratorial and monolithic bloc of Americans somewhere who must somehow exert supreme power over the electorate. What I tell people when I hear this now is that the speaker is a part of "they" and should exercise his or her patriotic duty and vote in order to be heard this November.

This year's election will go down in history as a watershed event for this country, regardless of the outcome. It will be the most studied and discussed election to date -- more so than 1960, or even 1860. And it breaks my heart that if Sen. Obama does not win, academics, pundits, and history textbooks will doubtlessly ascribe his failure to do to the simple fact that, well, he "doesn't look like the guys on the dollar bills" -- regardless of his policies or his personal biography.

By itself, preventing that outcome isn't a good reason to vote for Sen. Obama. In fact, to vote for someone based on race alone is probably just as bad an idea as it is to not vote for someone based on race alone.

However, there's a part of me that's very aware that if Sen. Obama wins this November, it will move the country in an entirely new direction. Because if he does, that 2000-pound elephant in the room is going to get a whole heckuva lot smaller -- no future Presidential candidate can claim that the electorate fears someone whose face doesn't look like those on the currency, and countless scores of coffee-house pseudointellectuals won't be able to talk about how "they" would never allow someone who isn't a straight white male Protestant to win the Presidency.

Think about it -- what sense would it make if a future Massachusetts gubernatorial race pitted a white and black candidate against one another, and the chattering classes speculated that "The white guy will win because Bay Staters won't have it any other way." I already know that it doesn't make sense, but that's only demonstrably provable because Bay Staters already showed that by electing Deval Patrick as their Governor.

I'm not 100% sure yet, but I probably won't vote for Barack Obama. I find it a bit personally insulting and even depressing that he talks only of ending, not of winning, a conflict that has a very real chance to see a real-live pluralist democracy spring up in the heart of the Middle East, regardless of whether votes cast in 2002 or decisions made in 2003 were the right ones.

As a career military member who expects to go back to the Middle East in either 2010 or 2011, that' s what you might call a big deal for me.

But I digress. Regardless of my own foreign policy views or the way my vocation influences my politics, I wholeheartedly believe that if Sen. Obama wins in November, it will move the country forward in a new direction, where identity politics and the conspiracy theories that surround them will steadily lose traction.

And guess what?

We'll eventually elect a woman President, too. But, unlike Hillary Clinton, it will be someone capable of connecting in a real way with a wide swathe of American voters.

When the right female candidate comes along, I'll be happy to count myself among the "they" who help make her President. And maybe someday someone will give her a place alongside Susan B. Anthony on some piece of national currency, and we'll have to talk about the "people on the bills."


Matt said...

This post is better than any op-ed I've read recently.

I will almost certainly vote for Barry Obama in the fall. But I actually sympathize with the McCain camp's frustration about how Obama deals with race.

He adopts the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement; his whole mantra of "change" seems more closely aligned with the color of his skin than anything else. It singlehandedly won him a huge swath of progressive support. Because at the end of the day, most of his domestic policies seem liberal-moderate and his foreign policies seem H.W. foreign policy realist. Almost nothing he proposes could be considered "radical" or even particularly "progressive."

He then uses his race to fire up the base, by telling them there is a region of the country that is so racist it hasn't voted Democrat since LBJ went all Civil Rights: the south. But internally Obama knows he's going to at least need to win the states Clinton won to have a real shot. And that's just cynical.

I support Obama because I THINK HE WILL BE A BETTER PRESIDENT than his opponent.

But when he says this b.s. about who looks like who on a dollar bill? Last time I checked the dudes on my money wore wigs or freaky beards or had bizarrely Eurocentric features. They don't exactly look like a 72 year-old guy born in the Panama Canal Zone with a partial skin-reconstruct on his face either.

The New Englander said...


Thanks for the props...looking back at the post, the one thing I sort of wish I had said was that once the racial barrier is cleared, we can focus more on issues (but I guess that was implied so it came across anyway).

Good point about the way you're going to vote -- Sen. Obama is more in line with your values/beliefs/vision for America's future, so you'll vote for him. Period. Never mind a bunch of guys with powdered wigs on our currency.

You know another funny thing about this race worth pointing out? It's so very Poli Sci 101 to say "America doesn't elect Senators to the Presidency because we prefer someone who's already an executive" (i.e. a Governor)..I've always found that incredibly dumb just because of the small sample size and the way different personalities affect that -- not some anti-Senator bias held by primary or general election voters.

Well, the one thing we can all agree on is that no matter what, this country is about to elect a Senator! I wonder if we should notify the cloak-and-dagger guys to see if "they" will *let* it happen..


Matt said...

Great point about the senator blurk.

Because I literally heard someone say it on one of the newschannels about three hours ago. The line was "this will be the first time a senator is elected since JFK." Then they went on to blab about the executive thing. Not only is it right that the sample size is absurdly small, but:

Nixon- senator
LBJ - senator
Ford -- congressman
HW -- Congressman

So it's amazing to me how the idea even got started.

Maybe THEY started it.