Monday, August 13, 2007

Obama: The Speech, part 2

ENW posted this great, "behind the scenes" look at the making of Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. I've previously written about how much I like this speech. I wanted to briefly articulate why.

I think most liberals/progressives and most Democrats get fired up about Obama for three reasons. First, he has done a superb job articulating liberal values in a way that reflects clarity of moral purpose, thoughtfulness, and a rational grounding. I think most liberals, true or not, like to view their values in this way - not as warm compassion, but as very much as a set of values bundled with how those values were cultivated - by examining facts, making considered opinions, and centered morally. Second, Obama projects strength, even forcefulness, in his face, through his eyes, in his physical posture, and through his words and arguments - this strength is lacking in many other candidates. Finally, Obama is stylish and a sexy candidate, but in a cagey and tough way, something missing from the remainder of the field, and not embodied by either Kerry or Gore. Even Clinton's sex appeal, I think, was different - warmer, and less dangerous.

I get fired up about Obama for all those reasons, as well. But what really drew my attention to his speech when he first delivered it was another element, far out-stripping each of the above. What resonated for me was the immigrant narrative that Obama used to frame his father's experience, and from which Obama derived much of his values and sense of purpose. Now whether this is contrived or genuine, I don't know, but it is a powerful narrative which I think will have political consequence in this election, or an election soon to come.

Specifically, I think there are two major implications of a presidential candidate who can claim an immigrant narrative (has this been done before? Dukakis?). The first is that the candidate can relate and draw in that wide swath of first- and second-generation immigrants in this country, from the children of seasonal and manual laborers, to political and war refugees, to the shopkeepers and taxi drivers of the inner city, to the high-achieving sons and daughters of well-educated professionals. Through fortunate circumstances and hardship, pretty much every immigrant shares a set of experiences when coming to America - in terms of learning a new language, grappling with a new culture, trying to carve a niche in a community, connect with their "American" neighbors while maintaining connections with their native country and culture, and so forth. Moreover, the values of achieving, of hoping better for your children, and the broad, empowering narrative of the American dream are still vigorously resonant for these populations (of which, of course, I am one). Obama, as a candidate, can speak in a uniquely resonant way to this portion of the electorate, which may otherwise have diverging political allegiances.

The second implication is more subtle, but perhaps interesting. An American president who maintained some identification with a foreign country, particularly, a poor, non-white foreign country would send an interesting signal to the rest of the world. No longer does the American government represent the distant will of some rich, white people, but rather, it becomes the provenance of a distinctly more identifiable persona. Symbolically, an immigrant president might restore the deteriorated perception of America as a land of opportunity and diversity - as well as a country where globalization happens, not just the place where globalization comes from.

It will be interesting to see, of course, how this all plays out - particularly in light of the current hot-button immigration debate. For me, the more interesting political narrative will be in watching how the unspoken tension resolves between that swath of America who has no connection with any other country and that swath of America who does feel a connection, either through an immigrant heritage, or by living in ethnically diverse communities, or simply through travel and a global perspective. Will a symbolic divide be exposed, and potentially exploited, like race has in the past? Or is this distinction inconsequential?


karsten said...

"by examining facts, making considered opinions, and centered morally". Is this a jarring lack of parallel construction or am I reading the sentence wrong?

Ritik Dholakia said...

Yes, a terrible sentence. That's what I get for writing late at night - part of my insomniac ways.

rone said...

I can't support Obama because he wants to stay in Iraq. That's a non-starter for me.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Fair enough. I'm very conflicted about withdrawing from Iraq, but that is a topic for another post that I'm mulling over at the moment.

karsten said...

Yeah write that post. That sounds interesting.