Godfrey Hodgson on Clinton versus Obama

January 24th, 2007

The idea of a woman and a black man fighting it out for the presidency, or at least for the Democratic nomination for President, seems irresistibly attractive. Sometimes, I find, the question who is more likely to win is asked here in Britain as if it were the surrogate for another: ‘Are Americans — white, male Americans! — more prejudiced against blacks or against women?.

There are in fact excellent reasons for having doubts about how good a president Hillary Clinton would make that have nothing to do with the fact that she is a woman. Something similar applies to the negritude of Senator Obama: the colour of his skin is only one interesting fact about him, and by no means the most interesting.

Indeed it can be seriously argued that he is not a black man in the full sense of what that means in American political terms. Barack Obama is the son of a white mother and an African father: he is not therefore an “African American” in the usual meaning of the words. Specifically, he does not emerge from a black political background, as other African American politicians did who were actual or potential presidential candidates: Martin Luther King,. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton.

The contest between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama is, however, intensely interesting and significant. For one, thing, their candidacies have such intense media appeal that they inevitably lessen interest in other Democratic candidates and possible candidates, and there are plenty of them, some with qualities that would attract a good deal of attention if the two glamorous novelties were not in the race: John Edwards, Al Gore, Bill Richardson (the governor of New Mexico with a Yankee father and a Mexican mother), Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa), John Kerry, Joe Biden of Delaware (chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee) and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a solid mainstream Democrat with a record of legislative commonsense on good Democratic issues like health and jobs.

Still, as of a year before a presidential campaign would traditionally get going, Senator Clinton is way ahead in the polls (47 percent this morning) against 17 percent for Senator Obama, who is running second. Both seem clear of the field for the time being. It is reasonable to ask why.

Senator Clinton is ahead partly because of her name recognition, partly because of her shrewd political management of her own career, and in large measure because she has the combination of celebrity and glamour that impresses the “mentioners”, those politicians and political journalists who collectively decide who will be counted as potential candidates and who therefore will appear in then polls and attract journalistic interest and financial support. .

Everyone has heard of Hillary Clinton, both because of who she is married to, and also because — as First Lady — she not only managed her image with both courage and skill in the most difficult of circumstances, and also because, more than any other President’s wife in history, she made a political contribution of her own. It has to be said that that contribution, her management of the Clinton administration’s health care programme was little short of disastrous. But since she left the White House, she has hardly put a foot wrong, except in one respect, one where she was in good or at least respectable company.

She was easily elected to the Senate from New York, which is still, with the possible exception of California, the best placed home state for a presidential hopeful because the concentration of media and other opinion formers there. She was careful not to seem to be using the Senate as merely as stepping stone to a presidential run. She succeeded — better than many who knew her anticipated — in making few enemies.

She made only one mistake, one that most of her colleagues made with her, and it may yet destroy her hopes of the White House. She voted for the Iraq war. She made the calculation, made also not only by all but a maverick handful of Democrats, but also by the best pressed minds in the punditocracy, of assuming that the national reaction to 9/11 made George Bush’s war politically unassailable. The mid-term elections of 2006 proved that, whatever may have been true in 2004 or 2005, is not true now.

The case of Senator Obama is different. In 1968, when I was travelling with Senator Robert Kennedy in California, I wrote a piece about the pyramids of voters, hanging on his words as he spoke from a flatbed truck, reaching up to him, clutching at his clothing, their faces expressing adoration and trust. If only, I wrote, one could understand what those voters wanted, and why they saw Robert Kennedy as a Messiah, much about America would become clear.

Barack Obama has the Kennedy touch. There is an emotional fervour, a flavour of the Great Awakenings and nineteenth century evangelism, of Moody and Sankey and the Chatauqua tent, about his appearances. His books sell almost as well as the novels of the reverend Tim La Haye about the wrath to come, and they are much better books. He is a serious, a committed, a highly educated man, who worked as an activist with the poor in Chicago, then resisted the golden temptations that lie in the path of a black man who has been the editor of the Harvard Law Review, to commit himself to law teaching and politics.

None of that means, however, that he has the special combination of personal characteristics and political skills that not only took a Lyndon Johnson, say, or a Ronald Reagan to the Oval office and then enabled them to use the power of the office. Obama has everything going for him, including, perhaps for the first time in this generation, the fact that he is of mixed race. For the fact is that, though racial inequality has by no means disappeared in American life, most Americans now are actually pleased to see a Condoleezza Rice, a Tiger Woods, a Colin Powell or an Oprah Winfrey “making it”.

Subtly, it flatters white Americans by feeding an “Americn exceptionalism” of the Left: “Look”, it says, “in this great country of ours there are no barriers blocking the path of an African American!” Ask a Condi Rice or a Colin Powell, deep in private conversation — not that I have ever had the chance to do so — whether they met any barriers, and I will warrant that they will tell you, yes, there were barriers, but we overcame them, and we were allowed to do so.

Which brings me back, by a circuitous but I think necessary route, to the question with which I started. Are Americans more uncomfortable with the idea of a black president, or a female president?

The answer, I believe, is that while the opinions and attitudes of the American people are, as the sands of the sea, innumerable and unknowable, one truth is probably to be relied on. Americans prefer public and political figures who do not appear to be stereotypes or epitomes of a group. They feel more comfortable, to take a perhaps offensive example, with a Jew who is, like Senator Goldwater, an Episcopalian. They prefer an African American, like Colin Powell, who is a Republican. And the first woman president, it has often been said, would have to be someone who does not come on as a feminist.

Now Hillary Clinton would be annoyed to be told that she is not a feminist. Like highly educated women of her generation (and she did almost as well at the Yale law school as senator Obama did at Harvard) she believes that all opportunities ought to be open to women, and the presidency ought to be an equal opportunity employment. She certainly feels, too, that it is time that a woman should prove that by winning.

It is my personal hunch, however, that Hillary Clinton’s success or failure will depend on how she handles a very delicate task of political persuasion. How — to put it crudely — does she persuade women voters that she is a feminist at heart, while at the same time persuading male voters that she isn’t?

Oddly, her task may be trickier than Senator Obama’s. For he is already in a position to have the best of all political worlds. It is plain enough that he is not an ordinary African American. His father was a diplomat, his mother white, from Kansas. He grew up in mult-racial Hawaii and in Indonesia, where his mother moved after marrying an Indonesian. He went to Catholic and also to Muslim schools.

If, as I suspect, Obama is acceptable to mainstream American voters, as an American, not an African American, it may be evidence — not, as American exceptionalists and flag-wavers would have you believe — that racial prejudice is dead. It may be that today, in America, as has long been the case elsewhere, class ultimately trumps race.

If you went to Harvard, that is, are you less black? Ah, but in that case, if you went to the Yale law school, are you less a woman? Does class trump gender?

Godfrey Hodgson is journalist and author mainly on American politics. He helped set up the Laurence Stern Fellowship which sends a young British journalist to Washington to work for three months on the Washington Post. Last year’s winner met Barack Obama when she was there. Anushka Asthana of The Observer is writing about her experience for The Daily Novel. Coming soon.

2 Responses to “Godfrey Hodgson on Clinton versus Obama”

  1. Chaz Says:

    The poll numbers right now are almost useless. Hillary has high marks b/c she has name recognition and people don’t know Obama yet, when primary season starts that changes very fast. Lieberman was the Dem frontrunner in 2004, and things didn’t work out so well for him. (Indeed, in the one most interesting poll I’ve seen– in Iowa– it’s John Edwards who leads both Hillary and Obama, though Obama does better than Hillary.)

    Also, it wasn’t just Hillary’s vote in favor of Iraq’s that’s hurting her, it’s her persistent support for it. John Edwards also voted for Iraq, but years ago he admitted it was a terrible mistake and has opposed it.

    Besides, that wasn’t Hillary’s only major mistake. She also supported that horrendous bankruptcy reform bill and has advocated in favor of other laws that are favorable to big business but very hostile to individuals. This is ensnaring her almost as badly as her Iraq war support, and turning Democratic grass-roots voters against her. She’d be about the worst candidate that the Democrats could field.

  2. Datingwoman Says:

    Hi, Great Post…

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