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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 12/28/2010

Remembering 'Obama for America'

By Ezra Klein

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Was the 2008 campaign really that long ago?

Jonathan Bernstein and Ross Douthat are arguing over the uniqueness of the excitement that Barack Obama's candidacy generated. Douthat says that Obama "persuaded Democrats that the laws of politics had been suspended, and that every legislative goal they’d ever dreamed about was now within reach." Bernstein rejoins that "activists get enchanted by candidate? C'mon, that's the oldest story in the book. Happened with George W. Bush, happened with Bill Clinton, happened with Ronald Reagan, happened, sad to say, with Jimmy Carter."

At this point, we're used to seeing a black man give speeches from the Rose Garden, which is how Douthat can write about the excitement that greeted Obama without even mentioning his skin color. But it was a novel concept back then, and as it came closer and closer to reality, people began to feel that they were witnessing -- and even participating -- in something important. You can't write about the enthusiasm his candidacy generated -- and in particular, the sense that it was somehow "different" -- without mentioning the actual thing that made it different.

Similarly, Bernstein goes too far in likening the Obama candidacy to every other silver-tongued politician who won hearts and minds in the snows of New Hampshire. Given the history of our country, Obama's campaign was meaningful in a way that Bill Clinton's or George W. Bush's or Ronald Reagan's simply wasn't, and for reasons that had nothing to do with whether cap-and-trade legislation was imminent. On those more prosaic questions, the debate was much more typical of any primary campaign, with some people arguing that Hillary Clinton's experience would make her more effective while others felt John Edwards's rhetorical skills would give him the edge and everyone overestimating how different the various candidates were from one another.

As it happened, Obama's administration ended up making substantial and unexpected accommodations to the laws of politics -- see Emanuel, Rahm -- and getting a lot more done than his doubters expected. But that could've been true -- or not true -- for any of them. Maybe Hillary Clinton would've proven a profound moral leader from the Oval office. "Presidential candidate likeliest to pass health-care reform" was a jump ball back in the 2008 election. "Presidential candidate likeliest to be the first African American president" wasn't, and it was too big a deal to write it out of histories of Obama's supporters.

Photo credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  | December 28, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
 
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Comments

Why is it that liberals, who are supposed to be so open minded, are always the ones that see the color of a persons skin first and the content of their character second? Obama being the first black president is only as significant as Kennedy being the first Catholic president. History will judge him as a mediocre community organizer who got in over his head. Future congresses will dismantle and re-write his supposedly "historic" legislation. Obama is destined to be a one term president who reminds people of Jimmy Carter.

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Posted by: sdgashasdg | December 28, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Maybe I'm being naive, but Obama's race just never figured prominently into my decision to support him. What I always liked about him was that he was not ashamed of his intellectualism and he spoke favorably of a role for the Federal government in our lives. I'm not very old, but I can't remember another candidate who fit that description. I also always viewed Obama as being part of the "Joshua" generation. That is, he isn't about endlessly re-litigating the 1960s because he wasn't a part of it. That makes him the first President since the 1960s for which that is true.

Posted by: willows1 | December 28, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse


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Posted by: williamstaerk | December 28, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

* That is, he isn't about endlessly re-litigating the 1960s because he wasn't a part of it*

And yet, for his opponents, that's exactly what the result was once he took office.

I think that it is unquestionable that Obama's organization and activism he inspired was unprecedented. The only reason we are having this discussion about whether it actually happened or not (and it so obviously did) is because Obama basically shut everything down once he was sworn in and assumed that most of the "political" work to be done involved him negotiating with legislators rather than using the election infrastructure to support a "permanent campaign" to organize leaning on Congress.

*Douthat can write about the excitement that greeted Obama without even mentioning his skin color. *

Douthat, like me, grew up in the suburbs and attended an elite university, and thus the "zero sum games" of racial politics and struggle for assertion of one's racial "identity" (black or white) has bypassed him entirely. For African Americans, on the other hand, Obama's position was greeted with great enthusiasm as an indication that African Americans-- part of America's history for more than 350 years -- were actually taking their place in the highest offices of government. Meanwhile, those who lived in constant fear that "the blacks are now going to take everything" finally felt that their lifelong anxieties were coming to fruition.

Douthat (and Bernstein) is simply too isolated from the concerns of voters and local political activists to be able to grapple with this issue, so Obama looks like just another politician to him.

Posted by: constans | December 28, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

“Bernstein rejoins that 'activists get enchanted by candidate? C'mon, that's the oldest story in the book. Happened with George W. Bush, happened with Bill Clinton, happened with Ronald Reagan, happened, sad to say, with Jimmy Carter.'“

Um, no. Maybe Reagan, but the Obama phenomenon was not remotely what happened with W. Or Jimmy Carter. I've never seen anything like it. The guy was messianic--and now it's turned out he's a pragmatic, reasonably competent politician willing to make political compromises to get things done, and the folks who fell in love with the god are depressed to find out he's actually a reasonably good guy, with the normal failings humans are prone to. He can't wave a wand and give everybody free healthcare, a job, and a new car.

Obama may just be a man, but his election, and groundswell of support around him, both at the grass roots level but also in the press, was not like anything I'd ever seen. FDR and JFK were before my time, but I'm guessing it was something like that.

In this modern age with 24 hour reporting, and constant analysis, there was no way that the Obama presidency wasn't going to disappoint people who were expecting a transcendent miracle worker, rather than an ordinary man.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | December 28, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Kevin & constans - I think the "liberals upset with Obama" thing is wildly overblown. In some ways, I completely agree with Robert Gibbs' description of the "professional left" and its seeming inability to recognize a win. Sure, some of these people were instrumental in generating a fervor around the Obama campaign, but in other ways, they were never committed to the process the way Obama is. Look at some of the more vitriolic websites (MyDD, DailyKos, FireDogLake) and see how their web traffic has dropped since 2008. MyDD used to regularly get 70+ comments per diary. Now they get maybe 5 or so. Off-kilter posts about a Left-wing primary challenge to Obama hardly get noticed. And most of the comments are heckling the diarist. There is an all-or-nothing element in the liberal camp, but it isn't nearly as broad or respected as the 24/7 newsmedia makes it out to be.

Posted by: willows1 | December 28, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I am one of those lefties that some of the posts- but I also read Baracks policy papers and became familiar with his history before deciding on someone else during the primaries. I worked for him after he won the nomination- but he has been what I expected. Which one of the 8 of them would have not have done healthcare and financial reform, pulling out of Iraq(started during W), etc.? I think one of the others might have gone about it more ambitiously?

I think Ezra is correct that Barack's skin color was a major factor- but this is kind of unfortunate- he only shares a skin color. His white mother and grandparents raised him. His African father who he met for only one month did not suffer the historic discrimination in the US. Hawaii and Indonesia and a series of private schools are not exactly the environment that people are talking about when they consider discrimination.

Meanwhile have we forgotten that 52% of the population is female and- looking over the 44 presidents- I still have yet to see one without a y-chromosome. The 19th ammendment in 1920 allowed African American and all other women the right to vote 55 years after African American men had gained that right. Shirley Chisholm said "of my two "handicaps" (in her run for the presidency in 1972), being a women has been more of an obstacle than being black. There are 19 leaders of ~200 countries that are female currently. More that 19 leaders of African and Caribbean nations share Baracks skin color.

Just sayin'...perhaps we should check our own biases and why we are celebrating elevating some because of them and lowering others.

Posted by: NYClefty | December 28, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

willows1, my comment didn't say anything about dailykos, mydd, et al.

Posted by: constans | December 28, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

NYClefty - I think Hillary Clinton would have made an excellent President. It is deeply unfortunate that she has the last name that she does. I did not want to live in a country where the President of the United States for at least a quarter of a century had one of two last names. This says nothing about her abilities and everything about the incestuous, insiders' club we have created. Granted, voting for Obama doesn't make the game less rigged, but voting for him made it feel that way.

Posted by: willows1 | December 28, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Douthat and Bernstein weirdly fail to credit Obama's mixed race as a huge part of what excited the world about his candidacy. But if I understand the substance of their arguments, they're mainly focused on the expectations surrounding Obama's ability to enact his agenda. I doubt that many folks expected Obama's mixed race to weigh much on his ability in that regard, one way or another. As you point out and I agree, the ability to enact an agenda was pretty much a jump ball at the time. Douthat seems to want to claim that most of the excitement about Obama was due to expectations about this ability. Bernstein plausibly denies that those particular expectations were anything unusual, while failing to acknowledge what WAS unusual about the Obama phenomenon.

Posted by: onebeing | December 28, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Obama was elected Because he was black., which is the wrong reason.
Americans absolutely must be wiser and elect politicians based on their experience, their business background, their problem-solving abilities, etc.
ObamaCare is an embarrassing disaster;
ObamaCare was an opportunity to solve a major problem-- but Democrats blew it.
Democrats blew it because they were more concerned about passing a bill..ANY bill,
instead of solving problems.

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Posted by: josephpatel | December 29, 2010 2:27 AM | Report abuse

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