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The meaning of Obama

Updated Sunday, 20th January 2008

Will his identity as an African-American prove to be the most important factor for Barack Obama's success or failure as the Democrat candidate - and how much will he gain from Oprah Winfrey's support?

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It’s an interesting prospect that the next American president could be the son of an African man (and a white woman) who went to a majority-Muslim school as a boy. But to what extent is the candidacy of Barack Hussein Obama really related to this individual man, to his policies or skills as a legislator or thinker? Will his identity as an African-American prove to be the most important factor for his success or failure as the Democrat candidate, whether or not he uses it to manipulate popular perception?

What got me thinking about the possible meanings of ‘Obama’ was the entry of media tycoon and daytime Queen of the air Oprah Winfrey into Obama’s campaign at the end of last year. I wondered then how the personas of the ‘two Os’ could together alter the fortunes of the Obama campaign. I also wondered how her television fan base overlaps  with the political demographic that is so crucial for Obama. At their first rally together in South Carolina on December 8th, Obama drew attention to the unique nature of the event, given their ethnic origins: ‘Me being here is so unlikely…Just like Oprah being where she is so unlikely’. They were able to deploy the public personas they had already constructed through opening up their personal lives to the public – for Obama this was in two memoirs written before he was even a senator. They appealed directly to the state’s demographic (African Americans make up nearly half of all Democratic voters in this traditionally republican-voting state), peppering their speeches with ‘y’all’ and ‘you folks’. After making several references to church attendance, beauty parlours and God, Obama then danced to a Stevie Wonder song and invoked Martin Luther King: “But I’m not in this race because of the odds. I’m in it because of the ‘fierce urgency of now’’.

Oprah and Obama on stage

7.6 million viewers watch Oprah's show a day. Will her endorsement of Obama be one of his greatest assets? Perhaps it will serve to further racialise Obama’s image, and then we have to assess if that will help or hinder him.  Whether Oprah's popularity will translate into votes for Obama in the state’s Jan. 26 primary is an open question, but it does seem the case that Winfrey’s popularity has got him out of the starting blocks pretty quickly, allowing him to tap a swathe of hitherto disinterested or disaffected black voters. Oprah's tour came as Obama had cut into Hillary Clinton’s support among female voters in some states and the opinion of US pollsters does seem to be that Winfrey could help Obama draw more middle-aged and older women, the core of Winfrey’s talk show viewership. For the key to any endorsement by celebrities is to win people over who are not already in your camp. Women account for more than half of the state’s black Democratic vote. So if her support makes a difference, it is likely to be amongst women, also considered a crucial part of Clinton’s base in early voting states. But black female voters are also prime target for the primaries in southern states, hence Winfrey’s mention of the large number of beauty parlours in South Carolina. She said, ‘We love to keep our hair done, don’t we?’ She added, ‘I know what it means to come from the South,’ a reference to her childhood in Mississippi. One middle-aged black woman interviewed after the rally said to a journalist that she admired Oprah and Obama because ‘they’re both self-made, positive African Americans’.

I think Obama is an ambiguous character; he both uses and doesn’t use his ethnic identity. He has, no doubt, very little choice in this. I think he has to capitalise on this ambiguity, as Ophrah has so successfully done. Of course it's inevitable that he’s accused of ‘acting like he’s white’ by radical blacks. Also inevitable is the danger of democrats voting for Hillary Clinton because they don’t believe a black man can win the presidency – a kind of disingenuous projection of racism onto others that makes you think of a favourite children’s joke: ‘whoever smelt it, dealt it!’ Just as important, though, is the problem of class. In the US it's common to speak in coded terms of ‘beer track’ and ‘wine track’ candidates. Obama’s biggest problem could be that he’s regarded as a brainy 'wine track' liberal and thus may lose out to a rival, Clinton, whose support is firmly rooted in the blue-collar, non-college degree communities. This seems to have been the case in the New Hampshire primary of Jan 8th.

Obama’s credibility and popularity with the electorate as a whole will I think rest on him being an African-American in a country founded on slavery who plays down the destructive aspect of racial divisiveness - he is indeed a 'positive', 'post-racial' African-American. Although he is young and relatively inexperienced compared to Clinton, you could argue he is indeed more 'urgent'. And that's because, as Andrew Sullivan has recently argued in the US magazine Atlantic Monthly, he may be able to bridge the fissures that threaten American culture, represented by the great divide between white secular-minded liberals and neo-conservative religious fundamentalists. Can he hold a mirror up to America in which it sees itself in multi-ethnic unity? However, to successfully attract the black vote in order to achieve the Democratic nomination is one thing; he also must successfully represent the economically marginalised and socially conservative voters across the US. Perhaps this is an even bigger challenge.

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