COLUMNS

What Is the Significance of an Obama Presidency?

  • Capital Connections ®
  • |
  • November 01, 2008

by Karen Feld

capconn

A rock star? Perhaps. But it didn’t take much more than a “Saturday Night Live” skit followed by a boost from Oprah to validate the star power of entertainers when it comes to politics. “Even the press got caught up with the emotion and excitement of Obama’s campaign,” said Pennsylvania Governor and former Democrat National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell commenting on the candidate’s star power.

Nevertheless, we’re part of a historic time in American history. Sen. Barack Obama is the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party and has the potential to lead this country in its evolution to a new level. “The eyes of the world are on him,” said West Palm Beach, Fla., Mayor and Obama convention delegate Lois Frankel. “It’s bigger than a life message that any child can grow up and be what he wants to be.” In short, it gives African-American children a reason to feel good about themselves.

Just a handful of years ago, it was unfathomable to imagine that a black man could be this close to becoming the leader of the free world. Even Obama, himself, recalled the dreams of a previous generation: “I may not ever see a black man be able to be in the White House, but maybe my child will see it, or my grandchild will see it.” The candidate hails the 40-year-old bipartisan Congressional Black Caucus as laying the groundwork for his nomination.

Democrats want Obama to make history but still talk privately about whether or not to emphasize the race issue. Former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, the nations first black governor, carefully reminds us, “History doesn’t pay the taxes; history doesn’t build schools.”

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.(D-Ill), agrees with his hope that “history judges Obama less as the first African-American nominee, and more as the first president to solve health insurance and other problems.”

The economy is at the forefront now just as it was the defining element in the 1992 race, but global concerns are important as well. Regardless of the winner in November, the new president will likely have a rocky start and short honeymoon when he takes office in 2009.

“The proposals Obama is putting out now are a starting place, not an ending place,” assured Obama policy adviser Heather Higginbottom. “Obama chose to run now because the stakes were so high,” she added.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, an Obama surrogate on the campaign trail and a possible pick for White House Chief of Staff, calls the candidate, “inclusive.” “This has to be an inclusive process,” explains the onetime Senate leader, who reminds that as president “you still need 60 votes to do almost anything in the Senate.” “You need to create partnerships; you’ve got to lead with what you propose, but you may support something else.”

“He wants a friction-free, drama-free environment around him,” says Daschle, who says the best way to persuade Obama is “with his ears.”

Higginbottom agrees that the Democrat candidate’s style is to “get everybody at the table and listen.” She said, “He wants to talk to the experts and know both sides but his strategy is to go for the common ground.”

Among those to whom Obama listens: adviser David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett–who’s been dubbed “the other side of Obama’s brain”– Susan Rice and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig on foreign policy, Melody Barnes, Neera Tanden, Tom Daschle, Illinois senior Senator Dick Durbin, and most of all, his wife, Michelle. “She’s astute politically and has his unfiltered interests at heart,” said Obama national finance committee member Donahue Peebles.

Since Obama is portrayed by those around him as “all-inclusive” there’s speculation as to the role of the Clintons in an Obama administration. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill), who remained neutral in the primary, reminds that “Hillary has extra keys on health care. She could be an important ally in accomplishing this goal. She’ll be an important guidepost in the senate. Her advice, history and experience are invaluable.”

Sen. Daschle agrees. “She’s a voice at the table with an exclamation point! She can play an incredible role in bringing about a consensus.”

“The Clintons have the capacity to help him win and are an outstanding resource to get and attract talented people,” said Peebles, the Miami-based commercial real estate developer, who has been called the African-American Donald Trump — his multibillion dollar portfolio includes luxury hotels around the country.

Peebles feels if Obama is triumphant, “It will give America an elevated level of credibility around the world proving the presidency is open to anyone.” He adds, “Obama, as citizen of the world, could help us restore our country’s leadership role, and could open up doors to countries we haven’t related to.”

But what if Obama’s candidacy fails? “There’s still racism and sexism, but barriers are being broken,” said Frankel. Obama has opened minds and made the notion of a black president a reality.

Peebles fears that an Obama loss “would diminish the hope and optimism of our young people.” Many of these young adults got involved in a political campaign for the first time as a result of the internet boost for Obama. Never before have emotions raged so high in a political campaign. And people will be “more suspicious” of a loss – “Obama being an African-American injects another element into the race,” Peebles continued: “The rest of the world views our country with skepticism. America didn’t make good on its promise.”

One factor that may determine the reaction to a possible defeat is the circumstances behind the loss. As John Kennedy said during his campaign to become the first Roman Catholic president in 1960, if he lost the campaign on the “real issues,” he would go back to the Senate confident that he was “judged fairly.” Let’s hope that Obama is judged fairly regardless of the outcome.

There’s always the unknown that can happen in a campaign and certainly in a presidency. And often, that’s what actually defines an administration, but regardless of the result at the polls in November, the consensus is that America has evolved to the point where people of all races supported an African-American standard-bearer.

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